Human Rights: The ASEAN Dilemma

The microcosm of the problematic interface of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights with the value systems of individual Muslim-majority members of that organization is being played out among ASEAN states, which is becoming an economic entity of some importance in the modern world.

Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei, with sizable Muslim populations in Singapore, the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have in 2012 joined in approving a Human Rights Declaration that clearly eliminates recognition of LGBT-related issues from the Human Rights debate. This is only half the battle. The United Nations is insisting more and more in recent years that Human Rights protection must include those of deviant sexual orientation, although there is not one word of specific award of these rights to non-binary sexual groups in the Declaration itself.

This interface can be seen very clearly in a comparison of the Indonesian with the Malaysian approach to the problem. President Sukarno, to get financial aid from the West for his huge poor population, and to avoid such confrontations as we are discussing here, invented an ideology which he called “Pancasila“. Pancasila does not mention Syariah law, whereas the first Founding Fathers in Indonesia had an extensive debate whether to include Syariah Law as applying to Indonesian Muslims, or not.

The history of this debate in Indonesian independence can be found in a website on the “Jakarta Charter”, where the Muslim majority intellectuals of 1945 insisted that, alongside guaranteeing religious freedom for all, the phrase applying to Indonesian Muslims should make mention of the obvious fact that Muslims in Indonesia would be held accountable according to Syariah Law.

This fact was not “obvious” to President Sukarno, whose economic fallibility became clear during the entire duration of his presidency. He insisted that the words “Syariah Law” should NOT appear in the Constitution of 1945, which is still in force although considerably amended since the fall of Suharto. Sukarno’s realism convinced him that western, dominantly Christian countries, would not want to assist in the independence of any nation even slightly appearing to be Muslim, and not secular, in its governance. Therefore, Pancasila was made the sole basis for Indonesian law in 1965, by the new President Suharto, after ten years of argument on the issue.

Pancasila was intended to mimic Islamic Law by having five “pillar” principles, and anyone departing from these principles was severely punished by the Suharto regime. Ananta Pramoedya Toor, Nobel Peace Prize candidate, was one example, with his fifteen years of imprisonment without charges on the prison island of Buru in East Indonesia.

President Sukarno has been quoted as promising to return “Syariah Law” to the constitution, after independence was safely and securely in place. Indonesian trouble with Aceh is based on the fact that Sukarno broke this promise.

Therefore, to this day, the Indonesian government defines itself as staunchly secular, although loyalty to Pancasila is becoming more and more “lip service” to the rising younger generation, who see Malaysia putting forth a lot of noble effort to define itself as an Islamic government.

One problem with Pancasila is that there is no mechanism whatsoever for punishing various deviations from Muslim custom and law by the populace. Therefore, one may see cross-dressers begging by the roadside, in all their ugly attempts to look like women. Such people cannot appear in Malaysia (at least not in the light-of-day), due to the risk of being punished in the Syariah Courts there.

Since no further debate on Syariah Law was permitted by Suharto after 1965, the 1945 Constitution has remained an entirely secular document, although some local intellectuals still insist that it is a “Pancasila constituion”, rather than a secular one. Indonesia has subsequently received a lot of financial aid and interest from the developed world, and Jakarta, from its mass-village appearance in the early 1960’s, became a huge megalopolis of towering buildings and burgeoning over-population.

What are the results of such a compromise? For one thing, any Martian landing in the downtown of Jakarta would never know that he was in a Muslim country. Local people insist that downtown architecture should remain “secular”, that is, free of religious influence, so as not to disturb the tiny Christian group or minorities of other religions. In short, Suharto prevented subsequent community leaders from “playing the Muslim card” in building up a society of pride, loyalty, and peace. Furthermore, there is a tragic dearth of public works, such as flood control, public water supply, and so forth, because nobody could stop the Suharto family from diverting wealth into privately-held projects (such as Jakarta’s toll road system, originally built with very cheap cement by Suharto’s daughter, and which have had to be rebuilt since).

Medical care for the common people has only recently been addressed by the new Jakarta mayor, however, the suffering there is still such that young people often simply die from lack of medical attention when their poor parents have not got funds or insurance to protect them. 70% of disease in Jakarta is water-born, and yet the flooding of private homes with flood waters and raw sewage continues. According to a World Health Organization survey even more than twenty years ago, the final recommendation to the WHO about Jakarta was to “abandon and destroy”.

The Malaysian government, whatever its problems with religious deviance or apostasy, has never failed to such an extent to care for its population. Both Muslim men and women have access to services in the either state-backed or government-operated Islamic institutions to solve problems arising from divorce and other matters. Basic medical care and maintenance is available free-of-charge to all Malaysian citizens of whatever race or religion. Even needed medications are dispensed free-of-charge. Transport, which is a daily nightmare in downtown Jakarta, is being approached by multiple rail systems throughout Kuala Lumpur, and the central government has even announced a policy to eventually restrict all vehicular traffic within the downtown perimeter to fully electrified vehicles, whether public or private. And so on.

Is there a correlation between Malaysia’s prosperity and her formal adoption of Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution, which places Islam as the religion of the federation? One cannot say, yet the culture shock traveling between Malaysia and Indonesia is extreme. If a government itself is defined as Islamic, then it must demonstrate a “pride to be Muslim” for the people to emulate.

On the other hand, certain aspects of Pancasila have worked to the advantage of Muslim converts from abroad, who find the transition from secular to Muslim easiest in Indonesia of all Muslim countries. Certain Muslim outreach organizations originating in Java have spread to over eighty countries of the world.

The Malaysian mosques are magnificent, yet spaced very far apart, difficult to get to without an automobile. On the other hand, not having government support, the Indonesian Muslim communities have built their own smaller, more humble mosques and prayer rooms within walking distance of virtually every citizen. Indeed, without government support, Indonesia’s Muslims are exemplary in standing on their own feet, organizing foundations and much else.

By comparison, such as, so far in Malaysia, only a very few Americans have obtained Permanent Residence. If the Malays do not seem as open-hearted and welcoming as the Indonesians, it may be because they have always been surrounded within their own country by a population which is 40% non-Muslim. Indonesia only reaches about 10%, which raises further question as to the necessity of building a “Pancasila” and not an Islamic-style government, now that Indonesian independence is secure and financially progressive. Perhaps it is not too late for Sukarno’s original promise for Syariah Law to be re-inserted into the central governing documents.

Malaysia has an official national ideology known as “Rukun Negara”, also having five pillars, which is helpful in building a unified loyalty among its citizens. Pancasila could serve the same function, without conflict with Islamic Law being applied officially to the Muslim populace. Only continuing pressure from the New World Order United Nations, and from such countries as the USA, prevents this transition from occurring in a smooth or easy way. ASEAN may freely restrict its Human Rights policies to issues that remain within the boundaries of its religious, cultural and historical backgrounds, while individual ASEAN members must not be scrutinized on their own, religiously based legal principles. Such non-interference is also a major principle of the ASEAN group of nations.

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