As the international community sharpens its focus on Burma and its “opening-up” amid the ongoing release of political prisoners, its near neighbors appear to be heading in another direction.
Among them is Indonesia, which has enhanced its reputation over recent years through its improved handling of human rights, but has raised more than eyebrows when police arrested a 31-year-old atheist for blasphemy.
This was according to an interpretation by police and irritated district officials that Alexander Aan had committed blasphemy for writing “God does not exist…” on the social networking website, Facebook.
The charge also had much to do with mob rule. Local Muslims in the West Sumatra district where Aan lived were typically outraged, and attacked him for his comment while he was going to work. Their anger led to the arrest, with police saying the comment had implied God doesn’t exist and that this violated Indonesian laws and highlighted the fact that Aan is indeed an atheist. Apparently Aan, employed as a civil servant, also wrote: “If God exists then why do bad things happen?” And: “There should only be good things if God is merciful”.
Atheism is also illegal in Indonesia and Aan is looking at a five-year sentence for stating a personal opinion. According to one report, his sins were made all the worse because he had once listed on a job application form that he was a Muslim.
His arrest comes amid rising resentment against social networking sites, which have been blamed by local religious courts for triggering extra-marital affairs, leading to a sharp rise in divorce rates.
Issues between Muslim hardliners are a constant irritant with the authorities in Indonesia, Malaysia and in southern Thailand and the southern Philippines, although human rights remain a thorny issue across the region.
Like Indonesia, communist Vietnam – a relative paradise for atheists – had also won some praise for the release of dissidents, and this included people who were locked-up because they believed in God. But Hanoi still has trouble in coming to grips with its relationships with the modern world.
This was highlighted by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which accused Hanoi of carrying out a systematic crackdown in 2011 leading to the arrests of at least 33 people under vaguely worded laws and jailed – despite protections afforded by Vietnam’s own constitution.
People ranging from writers and defenders of human rights to land rights and religious activists were harassed, intimidated and in some cases tortured and imprisoned despite Hanoi being a signature to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
It also says that about 40,000 people, including children, are being held in more than 120 detention centers around the country.
Back in Burma, meanwhile, and the release of the political prisoners does represent a stunning turnaround in that country’s political fortunes. But talk of Burma “opening up” seems, at this stage, wildly esoteric.