Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once described the atrocities committed against the Russian people by German soldiers during the Second World War as a “crime without a name.” But would Churchill use the same words if he lived long enough to witness the numerous “killing fields” of the second half of the 20th century?

True, these are not the total state wars that consumed the first half of the 20th century. Still, the unspeakable crimes endured by our elders are still present today in one form or another.

A case in point is the continuing suffering of the Rohingya community in western Burma. The United Nations has in fact called them the most persecuted ethnic group in Asia because no country is willing to grant them citizenship. In fact, Burma refuses to recognize the Rohingya ethnic community even though the latter have been living in the country for many decades.

Using Churchill’s words to describe the plight of the Rohingya, one might say that we too are in the presence of a crime; but it’s a crime with many names. There are crimes against humanity; and there are crimes against Rohingya. Already stateless, landless, and homeless, Rohingya people are faced with daily doses of various forms of discrimination. As unwanted residents, they are deprived of basic human rights and welfare services. Regarded as outsiders, they are collectively accused of inciting violence in Burma every time a member of their community is found guilty of committing a crime.

But the Rohingya are not merely battling the racism of the junta-backed ruling party in Burma. Unfortunately, they are also victimized by the supposedly pro-democracy opposition parties, many of whom have echoed the government’s position that the Rohingya are illegal residents of Burma.

Further inflaming the tension and hatred in Burma is the irresponsible action of some groups which have posted false images on the internet to draw attention to the suffering of the Rohingya. Naturally, it angered many Burmese who suspect that Western groups and foreign governments are conspiring to isolate Burma in the international community.

Foreign groups may have exploited Rohingya issue to further their sinister agenda, but this doesn’t excuse the continued marginalization of the ethnic group. Nor does it invalidate human rights groups’ criticism about the deteriorating situation in Rohingya refugee camps. It also doesn’t make the global petition to support the Rohingya on humanitarian grounds any less valid.

It isn’t helpful to perpetuate the Rohingya-Rakhine dichotomy. A stand in favor of Rohingya doesn’t mean we are condemning the Rakhine. Both groups are victims of violence who must learn to coexist peacefully.

The first step towards that goal would be the Burmese government recognizing that its policy towards the Rohingya is causing further division and conflict in the country. It could also ensure that the often invoked “rule of law” should apply to the parties perpetrating the horrendous crimes against the group. If Burma is hesitant to listen to Western institutions about the need to rethink its policies concerning the Rohingya, then maybe the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can intervene by listing the Rohingya issue as part of its agenda in the next caucus of the regional grouping.

Written for The Diplomat

Sectarian Threat to ASEAN

Last Monday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III reiterated his endorsement for ‘responsible parenthood’ as a solution to curb the country’s high birth rate. This irked some Catholic bishops who immediately accused the president of launching an all-out war against the church.

Early this month, officials of Singapore’s City Harvest Church were arrested and charged with breach of trust. Investigators alleged that the church had used US$19.2 million of charitable donation to finance the church founder’s wife’s pop music career.

Last May, Malaysian police raided a printing house and detained its director over the publication of a banned book by a liberal Muslim activist.

These separate incidents highlight the special role of organized religion in several Southeast Asian societies. They reflect the political power of churches and the popularity of church leaders among the masses.

In the case of the Philippines, critics are blaming the obstinate opposition of the church for the repeated failure of Congress to pass legislative measures on reproductive health and divorce. The Catholic-dominated Philippines is the only country in the world without a divorce law.

Meanwhile, the scandal involving Singapore’s largest congregation sparked debate about the practice of tithing. It also led many people to question the moral fitness of church leaders who were reported to be living in luxury.

On the other hand, the raid in Malaysia became controversial because it exposed the lack of religious freedom in the country. The raid came as no surprise to many analysts and observers, however, who have been raising concerns about the growing religious intolerance in the country. Despite being a Muslim majority nation, Malaysia is known for promoting religious harmony. Today, there is a demand from many sectors, especially the academy, for an interfaith dialogue to defuse religious tension, end religious discrimination, and revive the spirit of multiculturalism.

Indonesia too could benefit from interfaith dialogues given the rising number of cases of religious violence in the archipelago. At the minimum, it should revisit its law granting legal protection to only six major religions. Scholars believe the non-recognition of minority religious sects has given impetus to hardliners to attack small churches and their followers.

Cases of religious persecution have been reported too in Vietnam where several Christian groups have taken the lead in organizing resistance to development aggression projects. Rohingya, the stateless people of Southeast Asia, are facing religious discrimination too in west Myanmar.

Religious conflicts can sometimes lead to protracted wars. Since the 1970s, for example, the Philippines has been facing a separatist movement in the Muslim-dominated areas of Mindanao Island. Similarly, Thailand continues to battle an Islamic insurgency in the south part of the country.

Religion is not often discussed in the meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It’s understandable since there is no dominant religion in the region. But if religious bigotry leads to the repression of minorities and the killings of innocent civilians, then it’s necessary to put this matter in the mainstream agenda of the grouping. There’s no point talking about democracy and regional solidarity if discrimination based on religion is allowed to flourish in many Southeast Asian countries

Written for The Diplomat

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