Malaysia and Myanmar clashed over the Rakhine humanitarian crisis. Malaysia’s motivations deserve scrutiny.
By John Pennington
Malaysia broke ranks with ASEAN and called out Myanmar for its handling of the ongoing Rakhine humanitarian crisis. Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman accused the Myanmar government of having “unleashed a full-scale humanitarian crisis.”
Myanmar enforced controls preventing Malaysians’ free entry to the country. Malaysia made an unusual move by disassociating itself from ASEAN’s joint statement on the crisis. Is the country’s leadership appalled by the treatment of the Rohingya people or is there an Islamic agenda behind their dissent? Is it a combination of factors?
Bangladesh needs help to deal with the crisis – from Myanmar and other countries
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh to escape what the United Nations (UN) defines as ethnic cleansing. Bangladesh is unable to deal with the crisis alone. Malaysia and other countries helped by providing aid. For example, Malaysia sent volunteers, food and supplies into Bangladesh and planned to set up a field hospital to treat refugees.
However, experts believe that even assistance from Malaysia and Indonesia will not achieve very much. “Bangladesh could try to work with Malaysia and Indonesia to pressure Myanmar through ASEAN,” said Southeast Asia expert Zachary Abuza, a professor and expert on Southeast Asian security. “But that is not going to work. The Rohingya issue is very divisive within ASEAN.”
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, said the country would allow “verified” Rohingya refugees back into the country. However, Myanmar also cancelled a planned UN visit. Human rights groups criticised her government for failing to protect her country’s Muslims. Onlookers are sceptical about her latest claims.
ISIS and Al-Qaeda have called for action
The Malaysian government is concerned that terrorist organisations will use the crisis to their benefit. “We cannot leave them (the Rohingya) desperate and wanting because if they are and they turn to these groups, countries in this region would have to pay the price,” urged Malaysia’s Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin.
Malaysia’s counter-terrorism officials reported that they believe so-called Islamic State (IS) members in Malaysia will use the crisis to wage “jihad” against Myanmar. As a result, Malaysia increased patrols in a bid to stop terrorists – inspired or recruited by Al Qaeda, IS, or their associates – smuggling their way into Rakhine. The government does not want to see a repeat of what happened in Marawi in the Philippines.
Some Malaysians already slipped through the net. They joined the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA). “Although the majority of Muslims still support a peaceful settlement with Rohingya returning to their homeland, a smaller segment thinks that an armed ‘jihad’ is the only solution left to end the plight of the Rohingya,” Iftekharul Bashar, associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, warned.
Malaysia is concerned about the crisis on many levels
As a majority-Muslim country, Malaysian officials cannot just ignore this threat and allow the crisis to escalate further. Both Malaysia and Indonesia, which is also a majority-Muslim nation, have consistently spoken out in support of the Rohingya people.
The ARSA’s actions against Myanmar’s forces have led to the Rohingya people losing everything. Both the Malaysian government and the general public champion the rights of the displaced Muslims. Elected officials and citizens alike recognise that the treatment meted out to the Rohingya people is unjust.
However, there may also be a political element to Malaysia’s actions. Opponents and critics believe that Prime Minister Najib Razak championed the Rohingya cause to try to shore up his support among Muslims. Standing up for displaced Muslims displeased Myanmar but may yet benefit him at the ballot box.
Malaysia has called on Myanmar to allow the Rohingya people to return to Rakhine and drop restrictions that render them stateless. Malaysia appears to have little interest in absorbing them into its sphere of control. If any of those Rohingyas now in Malaysia are allowed to vote then they would probably vote for Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party.
Nevertheless, the inescapable truth is that this is a humanitarian crisis sparked by ethnic and religious intolerance. Global terrorist groups moving in would worsen the situation. They would compromise regional security, and Malaysia fears that the region will become a “breeding ground” for extremist recruitment if nobody acts.
The government and the majority of its people have no wish for that to happen. Accordingly, it took a strong stance against Myanmar and ASEAN. Its decision to do so depended on a combination of several factors, including national and regional security, religious solidarity, and political opportunity. It is not yet clear which of those factors was the critical driver behind Malaysia’s actions.