The freedom to practise one’s faith in Cambodia is sometimes sacrificed on the altar of ruling party politics, observers said yesterday, a day after the US State Department issued a report listing a litany of breaches of religious freedom in the Kingdom.
The State Department listed a crackdown on a Jarai Christian Bible study group and the shuttering of a Cham Muslim radio programme as notable concerns in the International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, released on Wednesday.
“There were reports that the government disrupted gatherings of Christian worshipers and arrested several of them under the suspicion they were holding political rallies,” the report read.
“There was also criticism from Muslims about the government’s closure of a Muslim Cham radio programme without any clear reason.”
“Approximately 150 Vietnamese Montagnard Christian refugees reported being interrogated by Vietnamese police in Phnom Penh, drawing questions from activists as to why foreign police were allowed to question refugees.”
As social researcher Meas Ny pointed out, all three cases of seeming religious persecution overlapped with the realm of politics.
The closure of the Cham radio followed a political spat between government elites about a road traversing a Boeung Kak mosque, and could also be viewed as a crackdown on media.
Observers, meanwhile, have accused the government of allowing its cosy relationship with Vietnam to colour its handling of more than 200 Montagnards’ asylum requests, after the ethnic minority fled Vietnam fearing religious and other persecution. And as it did with the Jarai worshipers, the government routinely disperses gatherings held by rights groups, activists and political parties on the grounds they lack “permission”.
“In general we are quite [religiously] tolerant in social relationships, but I think any measure to control is more out of a political motivation, rather than religion in itself,” Ny said.
“We also have to look at the philosophy of the religion. For example, a lot of people within Christianity invite people to voice their concerns, and are given the freedom or are empowered to do so.”
“This kind of empowerment approach would disturb the existing political structure.”
Jarai Christian Pouy Nhor, from Ratanakkiri, said that although his Bible study groups had not been disturbed by authorities, police did come to take photos of worshipers and religious leaders after church. “I feel worried that one day the authorities will accuse us of using religion for a political party, because our prime minister [Hun Sen] always threatens people,” he said.
Sles Nazy, director of the now-closed Cham radio programme, regretted the loss and urged the government to reopen the airwaves.“Every time I reach out to the Muslim community, they ask if the radio would be given back again,” he said.
Ministry of Cult and Religions spokesman Ung Vibol yesterday said the radio show should not have been shut down unless it violated press laws. “If they are just broadcasting about religious things and Cham livelihoods, I don’t think it’s a problem. If there is demand, we should have it back.”
Vibol maintained Cambodia had “full freedom” to practice religions, and maintained the Montagnard and Jarai cases were more about legal infractions than religion.
The Jesuit Refugee Service’s Sister Denise Coughlan said that, in her view, religious freedom had grown in the country since 1990, and referred to the Buddhist teaching of metta karuna, or loving kindness and compassion. She said there were “warning signs” of religious conflict from other countries in the region, such as Myanmar, adding it would be a “tragedy” if Cambodia followed suit.
“I would rather see them be the beacons of hope with their metta karuna,” she said.
Cambodia was not the “worst offender in the region”, Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson said, but “the government certainly is not above restricting religion to pressure minority communities, or trying to bolster its own fortunes by masquerading as the great benefactor of Buddhism”.
“The ruling CPP really only worships one god, which is untrammeled political power – and everything else is subservient to that.”