Obama: Religious equality a must for Asia’s success

U.S. president tells Southeast Asian students that religious, ethnic minorities and women must have equal opportunities

U.S. president tells Southeast Asian students that religious, ethnic minorities and women must have equal opportunities

KUALA LUMPUR - U.S. President Barack Obama stressed Sunday the need for equal opportunities for minorities in Southeast Asian countries during his landmark visit to Malaysia.

Obama told a 700-strong crowd of youths and civil society representatives at Malaysia's first higher education institution, the Universiti Malaya, "There shouldn't be reason to discriminate, and you have to make sure that you are speaking out against this in daily life."

"And as you emerge as leaders, you should be on the side of politics that brings people together rather than drives them apart," Obama stated to great applause from the crowd after a student from Myanmar asked about bringing together the diverse nations of Southeast Asia.

Commending Myanmar for undergoing a transition period after decades under an oppressive government, the U.S. president warned: "However, the danger now that they are democratizing, is that there will be groups inside Myanmar that might organize themselves politically around religious or ethnic identities instead of principles of justice or rule of law and democracy."

Recognizing that the rights of Myanmar’s Muslim minority are not protected in the predominantly Buddhist country, he said that similar problems could be found elsewhere, as in Malaysia where non-Muslims faced hostility.  

"Malaysia won't succeed if the non-Muslims do not have the same opportunity," Obama stressed. He referred to the history of racism in the U.S., explaining that the situation had improved over generations to the point where he could be elected president.

Obama underlined that success is also dependent on women -- who constitute half the population -- being granted the same education and employment opportunities as men.

He added that although people have prejudices against those who are different from them, globalization and technologies such as the Internet are increasing interactions between cultures so that "no country is going to succeed if part of its population is sidelined and being discriminated against."

Noting that the basic principle of "do unto others as you want others to do unto you" is common to almost every religion, the U.S. president said: "And if you are not doing that, then we are going backwards instead of going forward and this is true for all over the world."

Later in the day, Obama met civil society groups who brought up human rights issues and the alleged political persecution of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in an hour-long meeting.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, the co-chair of Bersih --  a coalition of non-governmental organisations for electoral system reform -- told the Anadolu Agency: "The president was very engaging and heard us out and there was an agreement on the importance of human rights issues."

"He also assured us of continuous engagement through the United States embassy here," said Sreenevasan, a lawyer and human rights advocate, and one of the eight recipients of the U.S. International Women of Courage Award in 2009. She added that the meeting’s powerful message that civil society has a significant role to play in democracy’s advancement across the world.

Meanwhile, Council of Churches of Malaysia General Secretary Rev. Hermen Shastri told the AA that Obama had agreed that the ideal for a just society was a concern for everybody, including the government.

Hermen said Obama had listened intently to the discussed issues, including the restriction on using the word" Allah," meaning "God" in Arabic.

The controversy over the word "Allah" began after the Malaysian Home Ministry imposed a ban on the Malaysian Catholic churches' weekly publication, The Herald, against its use of the word to describe god in its Malay version.

Despite The Herald winning a High Court decision in December 2009 that overturned the ban, the Court of Appeal overturned that decision last October, saying that the word was not integral to Christianity.

The international community, including Muslim scholars, have criticized the court ruling, arguing that believers of different faiths have used the word "Allah" for centuries.

Prior to his three-day Malaysia visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president in 48 years, Obama had traveled to Japan and South Korea as part of his Asia tour. He will leave for the Philippines on Monday.

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