Sunday, 18 August 2013

Religious tensions heating up in Asia

Sapa-dpa | 18 August, 2013 12:23
Radical Burmese Monk Wirathu And His Monastery
Buddhist militant leader Wirathu stands inside the Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay, Burma.
Image by: Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Religious conflicts are on the rise in Asia, from small incidents such as Buddhist monks being chased from a Malaysian resort for chanting in a Muslim prayer room, to deadly attacks that killed scores of Muslims in Myanmar.

Minorities are coming under attack as governments fail to prevent violent outbreaks despite the freedom of worship guaranteed by most of the region's constitutions, analysts said.
"We're going to have a succession of wars for independence all over the region if we don't resolve these issues," warned Amina Rasul, president of the Philippine Centre for Islam and Democracy.

Rasul said political changes, global anti-terrorism efforts and economic inequality have triggered distrust, fear and radicalism that escalate religious tensions.
In Myanmar, 167 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a rampage by Buddhist nationalists in the Rakhine State during 2011 shortly after the country had assumed a semblance of democratic rule.

Buddhist-Muslim violence erupted again in central and northern Myanmar in March, leaving at least 44 people dead and thousands homeless.
Many suspect that elements in the pro-military Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won the elections in 2010, had a hand in stirring up anti-Muslim sentiments as they fight to keep power amid the growing popularity of the political opposition.
"Since 1988, the military openly used religion as a political tool, and the anti-Muslim pamphlets have been overflowing," said Al-Hat U Aye Lwin, chief convener of the Islamic Centre of Myanmar.

Hate campaigns, such as the boycott of Muslim shops launched by the hardline Buddhist monk Wirathu, have found receptive ground with the advent of democracy and freedom of speech.

"In the eyes of the people there is fear that Buddhism is on the decline," said Ko Ko Gyi, a former political activist who spent 16 years in jail. "They see that former Buddhist countries like Indonesia and Afghanistan have changed into Muslim countries."
The mobilization of religion for political purposes has also led to cases of intolerance in other countries such as Sri Lanka, where the Buddhist majority has been exerting its dominance over other religions since the end of the civil war against the mainly Hindu Tamil rebels in 2009.

"It is when persons are insecure that intolerance of other religions emerges," said Devanesan Nesiah, a former government administrator.
In the past four years, attacks on minority religions in Sri Lanka have been carried out by movements identifying themselves as "patriotic forces" protecting the interests of the majority Sinhalese population, which is mainly Buddhist.

While attackers are often identifiable, police have been slow to act and the government appears to be deferring to the aggressors who claim their actions protect Buddhism, said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
"This lack of commitment has led to the fomenting of religious and ethnic tensions in post-war Sri Lanka," he said.

The failure to prosecute perpetrators and amend policies that discriminate against religious minorities also threatens to further escalate conflicts in Indonesia, the New York-based Human Rights Watch has warned.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono stressed the need for citizens to respect diversity, weeks after a bomb exploded inside a Buddhist temple in Jakarta, injuring three men.
One day after that attack, petrol bombs were tossed into the yard of a Catholic high school, but no one was hurt.

"I call on all of us to realize that our country is diverse," Yudhoyono told parliament on the eve of Independence Day. "Under the spirit of unity in diversity, we need to continue to strengthen tolerance."

In Malaysia, a competitive political environment is partly to blame for increasing "insecurities and distrust" among different ethno-religious groups, according to a 2011 survey by the Merdeka Centre, an independent research group.

As political rivals try to outdo each other on who is more Islamic to keep support of constituents, the government has been "attempting to further inculcate Islamic values into the norms of governance as well," said Farish Noor, an associate professor at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The moves toward Islamisation - demonstrated by a raging debate on a ban on the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims and a decades-old policy giving preferential treatment to ethnic Malay Muslims - have further alienated the minority non-Malays.
For Amina Rasul of the Philippine Centre for Islam and Democracy, greater collaboration between leaders of different religions and more support for interfaith groups from government and the international community would be a good first step in fighting intolerance.

"You really need a lot of champions and interlocutors moving around different faiths and different communities advocating for tolerance," she said. "That is essential."

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