Religious Freedom on the brink in South East Asia

Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam among the worst countries in respecting religious freedom principles. Cambodia and Thailand the only nations with positive records.


The situation for religious freedom and for Christians in particular has deteriorated most in South and East Asia: this is now the regional hot spot for persecution, taking over that dubious honour from the Middle East.

“An increasing unity of purpose between religion-nationalist groups and governments represents a growing—and largely unrecognized—threat to Christians and other minorities especially in India, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar) and other core countries in South and East Asia, where Christian persecution has worsened the most”, denounce the Vatican foundation Aid to the Church in Need.

Attacks against Christians

Two of the most serious attacks against Christians carried out by Islamist militia in the past two years took place in South and East Asia. During Sunday Mass on January 27, 2019 two bombs exploded at the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo, Philippines, with 20 people killed and more than 100 injured. Daesh also said it was behind violence in Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019 when 258 people were killed and more than 500 were injured in attacks on three churches packed with Christians celebrating Easter Sunday. These attacks were by far the worst atrocity against Christians in the last period in terms of the number of people wounded and killed.

Burma (Myanmar) and other ASEAN countries

Additionally, in South East Asia, in 2019, the Burmese government (Myanmar) continued to commit widespread and egregious religious freedom violations, particularly against Rohingya Muslims. Ethnic-driven conflict and degradation of other civil rights often coincide with religious differences, thereby severely restricting freedom of religion or belief. During 2019, the Burmese military continued operations in Rakhine State that have led to the large-scale displacement of Rohingya. As of July 2019, approximately 910,000 civilians reside in camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, including Muslims, Christians, and Hindus.

In Vietnam, ethnic minority communities faced especially egregious persecution for the peaceful practice of their religious beliefs, including physical assault, detention, or banishment. An estimated 10,000 Christians in the Central Highlands remain effectively stateless because local authorities have refused to issue identity cards, in many instances in retaliation against Christians who refuse to renounce their faith. The Vietnamese government continued to arrest and imprison peaceful religious leaders and religious freedom advocates and continued to expropriate or destroy property belonging to religious communities.

Other than Burma (Myanmar) and Vietnam, other ASEAN (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries are listed as countries where religious freedom is not fully respected. In Laos, the communist regime tightly controls every aspect of religious life. Christian gatherings are monitored, and even registered churches are often forced to meet in homes. In Brunei, converting away from Islam to Christianity is considered illegal and punishable by law and strict Sharia law regulates all of society. While in Malaysia, every ethnic Malay is expected to be Muslim. Whoever deviates from this is viewed as going against not just the constitution, but also against society at large, their family and their neighbourhood.

Encouraging cases: Cambodia and Thailand

Only two of the countries in the ASEAN region are performing well in terms of respecting religious freedom. Especially in Cambodia, the constitution provides freedom of belief and religious worship and it also prohibits discrimination based on religion. In October 2019, a large Christian gathering took place in the capital Phnom Penh where over 3,000 leaders representing more than 7,000 local churches met in front of the Cambodian PM Hun Sen. It was the third time in the history of the predominantly Buddhist nation that this official gathering with the head of government had taken place, as Christianity Today reported. The Prime Minister noted that the right to practice religion was suppressed during countless wars in the ’70, especially under the Pol Pot regime, but was fully restored after the country liberation on January, 7th 1979.

Thailand as well is excluded in the ranking of the countries were it is most difficult to be Christians or where the religious freedom is not respected. Despite the good status The Kingdom of Thailand has been warned by the U.S. authorities to recognize their obligations under international law to refugees fleeing ethnic and religious violence specifically “to grant refuge to Rohingya Muslims fleeing ethnic cleansing in Burma. If not, hundreds could perish at sea,” as stated by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Chair Gayle Manchin stated.