Effective antidiscrimination protections needed for minorities

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This photo taken on Monday wooden boat transporting Rohingya refugees after it was intercepted in the waters off Bireuen, Aceh province, and were denied refuge in Indonesia. STR/AFP

While laws and non-legal measures are deployed across Southeast Asia to calm communal tensions, what is needed are effective antidiscrimination laws and policies that protect minorities. Ethnically and religiously diverse with divisive colonial histories, laws currently being used by governments, formed by dominant ethno-religious groups, are increasingly discriminatory towards minority groups.

These were the findings in Asia Centre’s new baseline study Harmony Laws in Southeast Asia: Majority Dominance, Minority Repression. The study analyses the legal framework and the impact on freedom of religion or belief and racial discrimination in Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Singapore.

Southeast Asia has long grappled with ethnic and religious tensions. But their governments’ securitised view of maintaining order led to the exploitation of strong divides within these societies. This approach often rendered minority groups as second-class citizens by infringing on their religious freedoms and articulation of grievances while privileging the dominant group.

In the countries studied, this was either done by according special status to a particular group such as the Bumiputeras (the Malay-Muslims) in Malaysia at the expense of other communities; or by according special status to Buddhism in Myanmar, while recognising only eight “national races”, excluding Rohingyas.

The Philippines has emphasised a strict conception of secularism but it allows the Catholic Church unfettered political and social dominance. In Singapore, multiculturalism in a Chinese majority society obscures the structural inequalities that disadvantage ethnic minorities. In all four countries, these situations point to a need for legislation to protect the minority communities.

Given the intersection of race and religion in the countries, this means that the reach of these laws and policies has the dual impact of affecting both religious and ethnic communities. Hence policies crafted along religious or ethnic lines, not only affect religious minorities of the country, they are at the same time also affect ethnic minorities.

In recent years, Southeast Asian governments have introduced updates to their colonial era legal frameworks. Billing them “harmony” laws, these are aimed to address online radicalisation and hate speech that exploit racial and religious fault lines. Instead of passing laws that affirm the minorities’ equal status and protect them from discrimination, governments have doubled-down on their control of religions practice and the airing of ethnic grievances to appease the majority communities.

For example, in Malaysia, following sharia law, Muslims face tremendous difficulties to convert away from Islam, while proselytising Muslims by other faiths is entirely prohibited. Another is the long-standing ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in their publications. Although the High Court overruled the ban in 2021, the issue remains highly controversial and previous rulings led to communal violence and the destruction of both Christian and Muslim places of worship.

Myanmar’s Religious Conversion Bill passed in 2015 extended the government control over conversion, requiring approval from the Registration Board and a mandatory waiting time of religious education. It was one of four legislation products that the parliament passed to protect race and religion. Others included a monogamy law, an interfaith marriage law requiring there be no objections from community members for Buddhist women to marry non-Buddhist men and a law requiring women in certain regions to space the birth of their children 36 months apart.

The Philippine government’s inaction toward deeply entrenched prejudice of the non-Catholics and communal tensions arising from it has sustained the discrimination of the countries’ diverse minorities and indigenous population. Moreover, the Church’s political power has been and continues to be used to silence critics through legal means. Article 133, penalising the offense of religious feelings, for example, is used to discourage airing of disagreement to the Church on reproductive rights.

The Singaporean government invokes the country’s multiculturalist base to silence criticism of its policies by asserting that the measures are the price payable for ensuring harmony among races and religions. The Ethnic Integration Policy, is a case in point, which dictates a quota along race and permanent residency lines within a precinct and apartment block of public housing.

The practice has caused the resale value for minority-owned properties to suffer challenges in terms of attracting optimal prices and restricting their market size; while the same property owned by a Chinese household enjoys better price and market size optimisation. Hence, minority communities literally have to pay the price of “social harmony”.

This finding that more effective anti-discrimination laws are needed is also relevant to other countries in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, its blasphemy law is regularly used to suppress grievances and religious practices of other minorities, while permitting and protecting six religions in a country where there are more than 200 native religions. In Thailand, Martial Law applied in its southernmost border provinces targets the local Malay population, deepening ethno-religious divisions. In Vietnam, the government continues to restrict organised religions – requiring registration, setting up control boards and constantly surveilling those who challenge the authority of the Communist party.

Given these situations, to facilitate a truly harmonious society, international organisations, governments, civil society and faith-based groups all have a role in making sure that laws and policies do not penalise minority communities. Inclusive stakeholder processes are needed to ensure that such laws and policies conform international human rights standards on the protection of minorities.

James Gomez and Robin Ramcharan are directors of Asia Centre which recently published the report Harmony Laws in Southeast Asia: Majority Dominance, Minority Repression.