THERE’s been a sudden spike in interest in the region on the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, a crisis that has stretched on for decades. And much of the attention seems to be coming from Malaysia.
On Sunday, the country’s ruling party Umno (United Malays National Organisation) organised a mass rally protesting the Burmese’s treatment of the Rohingya.
Most people know about the Rohingya, an ethnic minority from the west coast state of Rakhine in Burma, who are considered stateless by the government. They are oppressed, tortured and killed to the point of ethnic cleansing.
To escape persecution at home, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled their country over the years. In Malaysia alone, official records from the Foreign Ministry show that there are about 56,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia.
But here’s the thing. Malaysia doesn’t recognise them as refugees because the country is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention. Basically, all the 56,000 Rohingya in Malaysia are just recognised as illegal immigrants.
Hence why it is funny that Umno, whose members form the Malaysian government, organised the pro-Rohingya protest.
Even more bizarre is how party president and Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, actually led the rally, thumbing his nose at his Southeast Asian neighbour by ignoring a previous warning to stay out of the country’s internal affairs.
During the rally, Najib delivered a fiery speech, telling Burma’s de facto leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi that, “Enough is enough.”
Malaysia has never really taken any official stand for the Rohingya or against the Burmese government, despite it being such a big problem that affects the country and the region.
As a member of ASEAN, the regional organisation in Southeast Asia, the rule is that no member country is allowed to interfere with the internal affairs of another member country. So Malaysia technically cannot comment or do anything about the Rohingya issue in Burma.
That condition alone makes ASEAN a lame duck organisation. One of the main reasons for the formation of organisations like ASEAN is to create a consistent environment for a region to become a more or less a single nation state – basically creating a strong regional bloc.
But let’s get real. Malaysia’s leaders have never really done anything to show they are genuinely concerned about the Rohingya. Not being a signatory to the convention is one big indication of that.
So if Malaysia was serious about handling the Rohingya issue, then her leaders can start by taking steps at the country’s borders. Maybe recognising them as refugees or offering them refuge when they try to enter the country? These could be one of the first few steps.
Currently, the Rohingya, who usually arrive by boat (over a dangerous and life threatening course) are often denied entry and chased away by the authorities. And those who do make it in are usually caught, detained and deported back to Burma where they face persecution.
Those who are lucky enough to get a UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) registration card might not get detained, but will still continue to be harassed by the authorities.
They can’t work or go to school. These are basic human rights that are being denied them and this could be another step for Malaysia to show that they are serious. Give them the ability to work to support their families and and allow their children to get formal education.
The Malaysian government could even write or impose sanctions against the Burmese government. This was what happened with South Africa during the apartheid years. And Malaysia continues to have no diplomatic ties with Israel. So why not with Burma too?
Holding rallies and spouting rhetoric really mean nothing if so much more can actually be done in terms of policy.
Umno has been accused of just trying to gain local political mileage by latching on to the Rohingya issue. This could well be mere supposition but if that’s truly the case, it’d be good for the Malaysian government to note that their voters, and the world at large, are watching to see what they do next.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent