Mainland Asia includes East Asia, the Korean Peninsula, mainland Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent, as well as those large islands – Japan, Taiwan, and Sri Lanka – in close proximity to Asia’s coastlands. On the one hand, this highly populous and strategic region contains countries such as China, North Korea, and Myanmar that currently experience some of the world’s worst violations of religious freedom. On the other hand, several nations, particularly Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, boast robust and stable protections of religious freedom, with firm constitutional and cultural support.
Several countries in Mainland Asia continue to be governed by Marxist one-party dictatorships. The largest of these, China, with a population of 1.4 billion people, has the dubious distinction of having fine-tuned one of the most pervasive and effective state-run engines of religious control currently in operation anywhere in the world. According to the latest Pew Research Center report on global religious restrictions, released in November 2020, China scores 9.3 out of a possible 10 on Pew’s Government Restrictions Index (GRI), the highest score in the study. Combining mass surveillance, a social credit system that scrutinizes and sanctions individual behaviour, and brutal crackdowns on religious and ethnic groups suspected of disloyalty, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is in a class of its own when it comes to the suffocation of religious freedom. Furthermore, as revealed in the China country report, it has become only more brutal since Xi Jinping became China’s president in 2013, as demonstrated by the mass internment of more than a million primarily Muslim ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province and their subjection to coercive “de-radicalization” programs since 2017.
Other regimes in Mainland Asia with similar Marxist-style ideologies and mechanisms of religious control are North Korea, Vietnam and Laos. As the country reports evidence, North Korea practises an exterminationist policy towards religion that is even more severe than that of the CCP. Vietnam and Laos, on the other hand, continue to implement modest and incremental reforms that give religious communities registered with the state somewhat greater freedom to own property and pursue religious activities. Unregistered groups, however, especially independent Buddhists in Vietnam and Evangelical Protestants in Laos, continue to face serious harassment and discrimination, particularly at the local level.
Alongside religious restrictions imposed from the “top down” by Marxist dictatorships, a grave challenge to religious freedom in Mainland Asia comes from “bottom-up” movements of ethno-religious nationalism. Whereas methodical state-sponsored religious control is generally only possible in autocratic contexts like Communist-ruled China and North Korea, the fire of ethno-religious nationalism tends to burn most destructively where it enjoys the oxygen of democratic contestation and popular mobilization. In Mainland Asia, the democratic or semi-democratic contexts favouring the rise of majoritarian religious nationalism include Hindu-majority India and Nepal, and Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Thailand, and, in a milder form, Bhutan (see country reports).
With a population of nearly 1.4 billion, India is both the world’s largest democracy and the country with the world’s largest and most virulent movement of religious nationalism. Since the 1990s, India’s electoral politics have become more competitive, and a growing number of Indians have found themselves drawn to the Hindu nationalist message that India’s culture and national identity are essentially Hindu. India’s Hindu-nationalist political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won outright majorities in consecutive parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2019. Energized by these victories, the BJP has doubled down on its cultural-nationalist agenda in ways that have undermined religious freedom and other basic civil liberties, and targeted Muslims and Christians on such issues as cow slaughter and religious conversion, often by means of local enactments. The result, according to Pew’s November 2020 study of Global Religious Restrictions, is that “India had the highest levels of social hostilities – not just among the most populous countries, but among all 198 countries in the study”. India scores 9.6 out of a possible 10 on Pew’s Social Hostilities Index (SHI). Hindu-majority Nepal also recently adopted a constitution and a penal code that forbids proselytism and marginalizes non-Hindu communities and organizations, which suggests that exclusivist religious nationalism is becoming a pattern in Mainland Asia.
In addition, numerous Buddhist-majority countries, particularly Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, have witnessed the ascendancy of extremist ethno-religious leaders and organizations spewing similar anti-minority hatred (see country reports). These include Myanmar’s 969 Movement and the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, and Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Sena. Such groups have spurred more intense attacks on Muslim minorities in both Myanmar and Sri Lanka, with by far the most egregious being the multi-phase genocide against the mostly Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in 2016-2017. Christians and Hindus have also suffered targeted attacks in Kachin State. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, as the country report shows, decisive victories in both presidential and parliamentary elections of the Sri Lanka Podujana Party, in 2019 and 2020, have meant that a political party aligned with Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism and hostile to religious minorities has consolidated its grip on power in the island nation.
Another threat to religious freedom in Mainland Asia is transnational Islamist extremism. By far the worst single act of religious violence perpetrated against the Christian community in Mainland Asia in recent years was the Islamist-terrorist suicide attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, 21st April 2019, in which three churches and three hotels in Colombo were targeted, killing 267 people and injuring some 500. A steady rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence on the part of Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka, ever since the end of the civil war in 2009, appears to have played a role in radicalizing those responsible for the attack. In turn, the Islamist terrorist attack itself played a powerful role in fuelling extremist Buddhist nationalism, paving the way for the massive electoral victories by Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists in late 2019 and mid-2020.
Recent events in Sri Lanka illustrate how the main threats to religious freedom in Mainland Asia – religious autocratic governance, nationalism, and Islamist extremism – are not only dangerous in themselves, but moreover amplify each other in a destructive cycle. In China, too, the assault on the Uyghurs combines a strong element of ethnic-Han-Chinese nationalism and a desire to strike back after a string of terrorist attacks by Uyghur radicals on the ethnic Chinese population in Xinjiang between 2009 and 2016. As authoritarianism, ethnic and religious nationalism, and jihadism all show strong signs that they will continue to rise, as well as reinforce each other throughout Mainland Asia, this vicious cycle is likely to grow worse in the coming years, with dire consequences for religious freedom.
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