Malaysia must have a sound strategy to address this matter or risk straining bilateral ties with Myanmar.
LAST week Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a letter to the Foreign Minister of Laos, which is the current Asean chair, rejecting Malaysia’s proposal for an emergency meeting on the fate of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
In the two-page letter, the Myanmar government said it did not see the need to convene the meeting at the Asean foreign ministers’ level to discuss this domestic issue in Rakhine state based on unverified media reports.
Myanmar had its own reasons for rejecting the proposal – there has been an extensive misinformation campaign waged by well-funded groups using made-up photos and stories to attract the international community’s attention to the issue.
Myanmar, in the letter, also described as an “irresponsible comment” what had been said by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees official John McKissick, which it claimed caused undue concern among some Asean members.
McKissick, head of the United Nations refugee agency in the Bangladeshi border town of Cox’s Bazaar, reportedly told the BBC that the Myanmar government has an “ultimate goal of ethnic cleansing of the Muslim minority in Myanmar”.
The Malaysian proposal for an emergency meeting came after the Cabinet discussed the situation in Rakhine on Nov 25, and condemned the escalation of violence over the past months resulting in the loss of innocent lives and displacement of people.
The Rohingya plight also did not escape the attention of Umno delegates last week, including a call by Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin on Asean to review Myanmar’s membership due to the atrocities committed against the Rohingya.
This call for action culminated on Sunday, when Umno and PAS leaders turned up at a rally denouncing the Myanmar government over its treatment of the Rohingya.
An observer who was seated on the VIP platform said he attended the rally as he had been working on the Rohingya cause for some time.
“This rally has a political nuance. I would love to see all Malaysians coming together to stop ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
“We should now canvas the international community to take action as a humanitarian issue and not a Muslim and non-Muslim crisis, as other minorities also suffer from the heavy-handed action of the government and military,” he added.
A Malaysian official was not surprised by Myanmar’s rejection of the Asean emergency meeting.
“Of course they would reject it. Asean works by consensus. One country rejects and that means no go,” he said.
Another official was surprised that Malaysia went “ballistic first” and only then spoke about asking the Foreign Minister to meet Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Of course they would be angry. Asean is about face-saving. What have we initiated on this issue through the Asean process?
“It should have been earlier and more low-key in line with the Asean way instead of going ballistic first.”
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak said that the issue was about humanity, but wasn’t it just last year that there was an uproar over how we treated desperate Rohingya adrift at sea initially?
Sure, Malaysia has taken proactive measures to address the Rohingya issue, including meetings with Myanmar and raising the matter through several platforms like Asean, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the UN.
But does Malaysia have a clear strategy if we really want to help Myanmar solve the issue?
Perhaps the Rohingyas are just a convenient issue for domestic political gain. But the problem is real and no one is denying that people are being killed, robbed and raped in Rakhine.
So, what is next for Malaysia? The damage, whether Putrajaya likes it or not, is done.
We cannot close one eye and say bilateral relations will not be affected. Already there have been protests in front of our embassy in Yangon.
Malaysian companies negotiating deals in Myanmar will be affected, surely. According to the latest figures from the International Trade and Industry Ministry, Myanmar was Malaysia’s 36th largest trading partner, 29th major export destination and 52nd major import source in 2015.
While trade is small, Myanmar is emerging as an important destination for investment for Malaysian companies. Malaysia is the seventh largest investor after China, Thailand and Singapore this year.
Officials fear the goodwill built over the decades may dwindle.
As it is, other Asean countries will also wonder about Malaysia’s outburst as they may be well aware that non-intervention in each other’s domestic affairs is sacred in the grouping.
“The non-intervention has made Asean what it is today, kept the intra-Asean peace and stability for 50 years,” said an official.
“We all have issues like conflict in southern Thailand and southern Philippines, border issues like between Thailand and Cambodia and before that Aceh. Isn’t Malaysia testing this limit?”
Perhaps the Rohingya rally is for the right cause. But Malaysia must make sure it does not go too far with what it will do next.
Putrajaya needs to act quickly to assuage the worry, fear and shock of other Asean members, especially with the Prime Minister saying enough is enough on the Rohingya. That remark, to some diplomats, is seen as sending a warning to Myanmar.
Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in New York in September that Malaysia and Asean would propose an international conference to find a solution to the issue. What has happened to that proposal?
As Malaysia is fighting for the cause of humanity for the Rohingya, how are we really treating them now?
Are they illegals or refugees? Is Malaysia now willing to be a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention 1951, hence allowing Rohingya refugees to work legally in Malaysia?
It looks like Wisma Putra has many things to do in the next few weeks.