Guest post written by Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli
Dr. Rusli is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.
The issue of persecution against the Rohingyas has, yet again, made headlines. Many Rohingya migrants left their homeland by the thousands and set sail to greener pastures in a number of relatively small vessels to avoid persecution back home.
Some were successful in starting a new life abroad whilst many others ended up in the hands of human traffickers and were enslaved and/or murdered ruthlessly. For many Rohingyas, the relatively affluent, Muslim-majority Malaysia is seen as one of the last safe havens in Southeast Asia. There are more than 40,000 Rohingya migrants seeking refuge in Malaysia at the moment.
Malaysia has been criticized for its refusal to become a State-party to the UN-based refugee conventions. Likewise, Malaysia was also lambasted in its attempts to assist these Rohingya migrants–attempts that do not meet international standards, as perceived by some.
To help or not to help–is this a catch-22 situation for Malaysia?
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The Rohingyas are Muslims who reside in the northern province of Rakhine (formerly Arakan) in Myanmar, bordering Bangladesh, and they are ethnically and linguistically distinct to the other ethnic groups in Myanmar. While there are opinions that the Rohingyas are indigenous to the province of Rakhine, other scholars argue that they started to migrate from Bengal and settled in Rakhine as traders as early as the 15th century.
Reaching its heights in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Burmese Empire eventually succumbed to the British military superiority and annexed as part of the British Raj in 1885. During the era of the British Raj, the Rohingyas arrived in huge numbers into Myanmar in the 19th century to work on farms as laborers, as the fertile lands of Rakhine were sparsely populated at that time. This migration ended after Myanmar attained independence in 1948.
This situation could be likened to the emigration of the non-Malays into Malaysia (then Malaya). The first migration of the Chinese, known as the “Baba-Nyonyas,” into Malaya took place during the era of the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, but the number was small. However, the British colonial rule encouraged mass migration of both Chinese and Indians into Malaya in the 19th and the 20th centuries as cheap laborers to accommodate Malaya’s developing tin-mining industries and its expanding rubber industries.
The Rohingya immigrants in Myanmar and the non-Malay immigrants in Malaysia (then Malaya) experienced different destinies. While the Chinese and Indian immigrants were conditionally accepted by the Malays and were granted citizenship upon independence of the Federation Malaya in 1957, the Rohingyas were instead persecuted, discriminated against and treated with hostilities.
Generally, the government of Myanmar respects all religions and upholds Islam as one of the accepted religions in the country. In fact, there is a mosque located just next to the famed Sule Pagoda of Yangon–a symbol of religious tolerance in Myanmar. There is a bulk of Malay Muslims populated in the Tanintharyi region in southern Myanmar, particularly in towns like Kampong Tengah, Kampong Ulu and Pase Panjang. These Malay Muslim communities receive equal treatments as citizens alongside other ethnic groups in Myanmar.
Nevertheless, the persecution that is taking place against the Rohingyas is not of religion, but of hatred against this community. The bulk of the Burmese population consider the Rohingyas illegal immigrants originating from the Bengal region having nothing in common with any of the Burmese ethnic groups and, therefore, should be expelled from Myanmar.
There are about 2 million Rohingyas around the world and the majority are in Myanmar, where about 735,000 reside mainly in the northern Rakhine townships where they form 90% of the population as of 2013. International media and human rights organizations have described Rohingyas as “among the world’s least wanted” and “one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.”
The Rohingyas have been fighting for their rights since the Japanese occupation of Myanmar in 1941. When the Japanese surrendered, the Rohingya Muslims organized a failed separatist movement to merge the Mayu region in Rakhine as part of East Pakistan. This later prompted the Rohingyas to fight for the establishment of an autonomous Muslim state in Rakhine in the 1950s. This movement, however, faced opposition particularly from the Burmese coup d’état led by General Ne Win who carried military operations against them for two decades beginning in 1962. In 1982, the Burmese government effectively denied the Rohingyas obtaining Burmese citizenship through the enactment of the Citizenship Act 1982.
They are not allowed to travel without official permission and were previously required to sign a commitment not to have more than two children. This law, however, was not strictly enforced. As a result of these persecutions, most of them have fled to ghettos and refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, and to areas along the Thai-Myanmar border. In addition, they have headed south towards Malaysia and Indonesia to seek refuge. The Rohingyas received international attention in the wake of the 2012 Rakhine State riots.
The 2012 Rakhine State riots were a series of conflicts between Rohingya Muslims, who are the majority in the northern Rakhine, and ethnic Rakhines, who are the majority in the south. Before the riots, there were widespread fears circulating among Buddhist Rakhines that the increasing Rohingya population would soon turn them into a minority in their own ancestral land. The riots finally took place after a series of disputes including a gang rape and murder of a Rakhine woman by Rohingyas and the killing of ten Burmese Muslims by Rakhines. According to the Burmese authorities, the violence left 78 people dead and 87 injured, displacing up to 140,000 people. The violence against the Rohingyas is still taking place to this day. This caused an exodus of refugee flow from Myanmar into other neighboring countries.
The Burmese government had officially denied committing atrocities against the Rohingyas. However, contrary to international news, the Rohingyas were reported to have been isolated in detention camps with little or no food or water, discriminated against and treated with violence.
Malaysia’s Stance On The Rohingyas
In 2015, the world witnessed the exodus of the Rohingya migrants into the shores of neighboring Southeast Asian nations, namely Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. Initially, these countries were reluctant to let the migrants into their respective territories. In fact, then Malaysian Deputy Minister of Home Affairs Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said that Malaysia was not prepared to accept them–they were not wanted. This sparked concerns among international groups, namely the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration Asia Pacific, calling this a humanitarian crisis.
It was only a little bit later that Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand eventually agreed to allow these migrants to land on their shores.
Malaysia is currently harboring more than 40,000 Rohingya migrants all over the country. Despite this, Malaysia was criticized by a number of newspaper reports internationally. In a newspaper report titled “Concerned about Rohingya ‘genocide’? Then sign UN treaties,” published by the Asian Correspondent, Malaysia was criticized for not ratifying UN treaties relating to refugees. In other words, the report implied that Malaysia should not have a say in this issue until the federal government in Putrajaya signs the related UN treaties.
In addition, the Asian Correspondent has also lambasted Malaysia in an article titled “Shattered dreams: Dim future for the Refugee Child in Malaysia” despite Malaysia’s effort in sheltering the Rohingya migrants for years.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mohd Najib Razak recently made a speech at a pro-Rohingya rally in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, December 4, 2016 condemning the genocidal acts against the Rohingyas. This has sparked anger back in Myanmar claiming that Malaysia is spreading false news about the so-called genocide and that the spirit of the principle of non-interference practiced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was violated.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) sits with flood evacuees at a school used as a relief centre in Tumpat on January 7, 2017. (MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
During the ASEAN Foreign Minister Meeting for the Rohingya issue held in Yangon on December 19, 2016, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said that the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar was a regional concern and called ASEAN to coordinate humanitarian aid and to investigate alleged atrocities committed against them. These people are just like everyone else–human beings who needed food, protection and a place to stay.
Principle Of Non-Interference
As one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia respects the principle of non-interference–an underlying fundamental principle that an ASEAN member should not interfere with the domestic affairs of one another. ASEAN embraces the concept of “prosper thy neighbor.”
Originally, the Rohingya issue was in fact a domestic issue of Myanmar. However, is it still a domestic issue now when thousands of Rohingya refugees came trickling down to the shores of other neighboring countries in dilapidated boats seeking protection from persecution? Is humanity a global issue or just a mere domestic issue of a certain nation? Human life is equally sacred regardless of religion, race and skin color and, hence, should be treated as such.
Helping The Rohingya Migrants
Although Malaysia is relatively young country, Malaysia has participated actively in fighting against global persecution. Malaysia did not engage in diplomatic relationships with South Africa until the fall of the Apartheid regime in 1994. In addition, Malaysia actively assisted Bosnian refugees fleeing the country in 1994 and sheltered Rohingya and Syrian migrants up until today.
Instead of being acknowledged as one of the countries that harbored Rohingya immigrants, Malaysia was lambasted for not ratifying UN conventions on refugees. The choice of whether or not to ratify certain international conventions is solely the right of the sovereign. Up until today, the American government has refused to sign and ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (LOSC) despite the fact that it is the biggest maritime nation on Earth.
In a report by Al-Jazeera in November 2014 titled “Malaysia’s Unwanted,” Malaysia was criticized for not being able to protect refugees, resulting in the abuse and exploitation of this vulnerable group. As a developing nation, Malaysia has attempted its best in accommodating the influx of migrants. If not for Malaysia’s robust economic track record, these refugees would not be coming here in the first place. Even developed countries like the United Kingdom and those of the European Union (EU) face difficulties in handling Syrian refugees swarming into Europe.
A number of online newspaper reports slammed Malaysia for not providing the same attention to the plight of the Orang Asli (Malaysia’s aboriginal people) like those of the Rohingyas. Unlike the Rohingyas, the plight of the Orang Asli does not involve military brutality and mass murder. Hence, it is a different issue altogether.
Australia has been treating its aboriginal people with discrimination for years. In the course of Australia’s history, many were murdered, displaced, enslaved and neglected in poverty. It was not until 1998 that the government finally issued a formal apology to the aboriginal community, 97 years after Australian nationhood. This reputation does not in any way nullify the rights of the Canberra government to assist refugees knocking on its doors.
No doubt, the plight of the Orang Asli in Malaysia must be addressed by the Malaysian government. This however, does not mean that Malaysia should entirely ignore the sufferings of the Rohingya migrants coming to its shores.
Malaysia is a country that respects the overarching principle of non-interference embraced by ASEAN. However, the Rohingya issue now is no longer a domestic issue of Myanmar, as the hostility back home has caused many within this community to seek protection in countries within ASEAN and beyond. The continuous mistreatment against the Rohingyas would not do any good to the region.
Malaysia was lambasted by many last year for providing late assistance to the Rohingya refugees trapped at sea. However, when the Prime Minister showed support to the Rohingyas in a rally held on December 4, 2016, the government was also equally criticized. This really is a catch-22 situation for Malaysia.
Malaysia and countries within ASEAN should work together in persuading Myanmar in putting an end to this never-ending conflict. The Rohingyas are human beings and should be treated humanely. To help or not to help–this is no longer a question of race, skin color or religion. This is in fact a question of humanity.
Dr. Rusli is also a visiting professor at the School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.