A recent protest by 2,000 Rohingya Muslims in Kuala Lumpur illustrates how the stateless ethnic group’s plight has become a regional problem rather than just a bilateral issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Tensions between the Rohingyas and the Buddhists in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State erupted in recent weeks after a local woman was raped and murdered on May 28th, allegedly by three Rohingya Muslim men. Subsequent fighting left at least 50 people dead and more than 2,000 homes and buildings destroyed. As tensions flared, Bangladeshi officials refused to accept boatloads of Rohingya refugees who tried to flee the area. Myanmar security forces have appeared to tamp down the violence in recent days, though emotions remain raw and many residents fear further outbreaks of trouble.
Whatever happens, anger over the situation is appearing far away from the central fighting zone. At the protest held Friday in Kuala Lumpur, Rohingyas marched from a mosque after prayers shouting “Allahu Akhbar” or “God is great” en route to the Myanmar embassy to hand over a protest note. Some held placards that read “stop the genocide” and “stop the religious violence.” The demonstration lasted for about an hour before the protestors were told to disperse by the police.
Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM) President Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani told Southeast Asia Real Time that the protesters were not able to meet with any oficials from the Myanmar embassy because “no one wanted to come out and see us.” Efforts to reach Myanmar officials at the embassy for comment were unsuccessful. Mr. Zafar said the group handed a copy of its protest statement to security guards at the U.S. embassy instead.
According to Mr. Zafar, there are about 30,000 Rohingyas spread throughout Malaysia.
The presence of so many Rohingyas in Malaysia helps underscore how they continue to look for a permanent home across Asia after years of persecution along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. Myanmar officials regard the Rohingyas in Rakhine State to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh, meanwhile, says Rohingyas have settled in Myanmar for centuries and argues that it has too few resources to offer refuge to any of the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas living in Myanmar in abject poverty.
Left without passports, many of the Rohingyas have fled Myanmar in rickety boats, hoping to land in Malaysia or other countries where they can find a new life. Many are lost at sea. Some find land, only to be towed out by local authorities and set adrift once more, as happened in Thailand in 2009.
Others have actually made it to other countries such as Malaysia, where they are increasingly pressing for recognition.
Mr. Zafar, who is 42, hails from the township of Buthidaung in Myanmar. After a student uprising in Myanmar in 1988, he fled to Malaysia, where he has lived the past 22 years, marrying a local woman.
“The media in Burma is not giving the correct report,” said Mr. Zafar, using Myanmar’s colonial name of Burma. Although the government says the situation is okay now, “I am receiving news daily that the violence is continuing.”
Myanmar officials have said they are working hard to control the situation but have also warned that if the violence continues, it could set back reforms aimed at creating more political and economic freedoms in the country over the past year.
Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs likewise has expressed concern over the sectarian violence, saying in a statement that it welcomed a Myanmar government effort to establish an investigation committee to probe the conflict. “Malaysia is also ready to extend humanitarian assistance deemed necessary by the government of Myanmar for the people affected by this conflict,” it added.
Of course, there’s another concern for Southeast Asian governments: The possibility that more boats filled with Rohingya refugees could start flowing their way if the conflict intensifies and Bangladeshi authorities refuse to take them in.
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