Keeping the Faith Roadshow in Thailand Focuses on Freedom of Religion in Buddhist Majority States

Bangkok, 11 May 2015—Together with its partner institution, the Faculty of Law of Chulalongkorn University, the Human Rights Resource Centre disseminated the main findings of the Myanmar and Thailand country reports of “Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in ASEAN” in Bangkok. Focusing on the theme “Understanding the dynamics of freedom of religion in Buddhist majority states,” the roadshow began with remarks from Professor Nantwawat Boramanand, Dean of the Faculty of Law of Chulalongkorn University, and Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, Member of the Governing Board of the HRRC.

HRRC’s Deputy Director, Ms. Michelle Staggs Kelsall, during her presentation of the findings of the Myanmar country report, highlighted Buddhist nationalism, religious conversion and the rights of women in Myanmar. Ms Staggs Kelsall presented the findings in lieu of its author, who, despite having written a balanced report, had written it  anonymously for fear of reprisals or condemnation. She then noted how the author had asserted that violence and animosity towards the Rohingyas and Muslims in general has deep historical roots, as the spread of Christianity and Islam in the country was associated with colonization. She mentioned that the issue of freedom of religion in Myanmar is complex because it is intertwined with issues on race and ethnicity. For many, the Rohingya are considered as illegal immigrants.

“The changing political scenario also impacts on religious freedom in Myanmar,” Kelsall said. “The state has not traditionally sought to involve itself in the affairs of religious minorities. There were no requirements for registration of religious organisations, although more restrictive rules apply to Buddhist organisations with the State Sangha Mahanayaka Committee only recognising nine Buddhist sects. However, a package of four laws seeks to regulate religious activities more. They have been criticised for being highly discriminatory against ethnic and religious minorities as well as against women.”

Responding to the Myanmar country report, Dr. Kin Zaw Win of the Tampadipa Institute expressed the view that the Rohingya ultimately has to be absorbed by Myanmar, noting that the country is big and diverse enough to do this. For Dr. Kin Zaw Win, the Rohingya issue presents a test for Myanmar as a democratic society, a Buddhist society and a humane society. Regretfully, he observed that Myanmar’s present leaders are not moving the people towards a better society and a sounder state, which would include moving them away from attitudes like racism. Instead, efforts are channelled towards getting votes and winning elections. He stressed that Myanmar has to heal the divisions in Myanmar’s ethnic, social and religious fabric. (Read Dr. Kin Zaw Win’s recent articles on this issue here and here.) Comments on the report were also given by Mr. Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Asia Division, Human Rights Watch.

Assistant Professor Khemthong Tonsakulrungruang, country rapporteur for Thailand, highlighted the main findings of his report. He noted that while the Thai Constitution tries to maintain the principle of secularism, this has been compromised by the special status bestowed on Buddhism due to its history and popularity. “This is most notable in the field of education, which is compulsory for twelve years for all citizens. The state shows clear preference for Buddhism by requiring morning Buddhist prayers and teaching Buddhism in the national curriculum.” He nonetheless positively observed that there is no religious persecution by the state itself. The most worrisome persecution occurs in the context of the worsening of violence in the Deep South, where issues pertaining to ethnicity, culture, and religion are deeply intertwined. “Aside from ensuring freedom of religion, solutions will have to consider economic development, governmental recognition of cultural differences between the southern provinces and other regions, and upholding rule of law.”

Responses were then given by Dr Sriprahpa Petcheramsree of the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University, and Mr Sam Zarifi, Director for Asia and the Pacific, International Commission of Jurists. The event concluded with remarks from Ms Matilda Bogner of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Bangkok Regional Office.

“Keeping the Faith” was produced with the support of the Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta. The HRRC also receives support from the WSD HANDA Center for Human Rights and International Justice, the East West Center, and the University of Indonesia. The roadshow kicked off during the ASEAN People’s Forum in April in Kuala Lumpur.