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Malaysia warns Burma about anti-Muslim violence

Analysis by Martin Sieff
Burma Foreign Minister: Wunna Maung Lwin, center, and his delegation listen to proceedings at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan. [AFP]

Burma Foreign Minister: Wunna Maung Lwin, center, and his delegation listen to proceedings at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brunei’s capital Bandar Seri Begawan. [AFP]

The violence and persecution against Burma’s oppressed Rohingya Muslim minority is taking a new turn. Amid the latest upsurge in the long-simmering conflict, Malaysia publicly expressed its concern to its fellow ASEAN member state.

“Burma has to address the problem,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told reporters at the June 30 to July 3 gathering of Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN] foreign ministers in Brunei, making a rare intervention in another member’s internal affairs.

“I know it’s complex, but they have to address the problem in a transparent manner so that we can see what actions had been taken. … I think the perpetrators have to be brought to justice … so that it does not occur again,” Malaysia’s foreign minister said.

The ASEAN-Malaysia National Secretariat said Anifah raised the issue to his Burmese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin, on the sidelines of the 46th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting [AMM] in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei.

Anifah expressed Malaysia’s concern about the ongoing violence, saying it also had affected neighboring countries. He urged Burma’s government to bring the rioters to justice.

Malaysia’s Bernama news agency reported that Anifah also urged the government of Burma to permit a contact group from the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC] to visit the country and report on the violence.

The United Nations Refugee Agency said at least 28,000 Muslims, mainly Rohingyas, recently fled, both over land and by boat, south from Burma to Malaysia. Rohingya spokesmen have claimed the number is far greater.

Violence jeopardizes economy

Malaysia has worked quietly to encourage the Army-backed government of Burma to liberalize its economy, end repression and democratize. Along with Thailand, Malaysia is one of Asia’s prosperous “tiger” economies. Tiger is the nickname given to recovering and rising Southeastern Asian economies likely to become more active participants in the global market because of reforms.

Ralph Winnie Jr., director of the Eurasian Coalition’s China Programs at the Eurasia Center, told Asia Pacific Defense Forum that if Burma’s government did not move rapidly to quell the violence and restore law and order, the country’s ongoing drive to attract foreign direct investment [FDI] could be seriously impacted.

“Any kind of violence against an ethnic or religious minority group, whether it is Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Jewish, has to be addressed at once and quickly nipped in the bud before it spreads and becomes more serious,” Winnie said. “A burgeoning democracy cannot successfully develop either quickly or slowly if this kind of unrest becomes endemic and established in it over the long term.”

Winnie said the Malaysian foreign minister’s actions in Brunei were a warning message to Burma to take action rapidly to end the crisis.

“Burma cannot afford to ignore this warning,” Winnie said. “The Burmese know they need Malaysia as a major regional partner and customer for their potential hydroelectric power developments and natural resources. As one of the wealthiest and most successful economies in ASEAN, the Malaysians have a lot of influence on how Burma’s liberalization and opening to the global economy is viewed.

“Burma is already trying to attract investment from wealthy Gulf Arab nations as in its new telecom deal. That makes Muslim Malaysia’s cooperation and goodwill even more important to it,” he added.

“Even a little violence can have a disproportionate effect on companies that are considering investing in the country for the first time,” Winnie warned.

More than 150,000 refugees

Muslims make up only 5 percent of Burma’s 60 million people and the Rohingya minority is mostly concentrated in the poor northwest portion of the country. Waves of violence and rioting over the past year have displaced more than 150,000 people and at least 237 people have been reported killed, most of them Rohingyas.

The unrest started in western Arakan state but has spread throughout the country, even into the central heartland and close to the largest city, main business canter and former capital Yangon – formerly known as Rangoon.

International human rights groups have criticized the government of President Thein Sein for its failure to take any serious action to end or deter the violence against the Rohingyas. Nobel Peace prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the popular National League for Democracy, who has announced she will run for president in 2015, stayed silent on the violence and has not condemned it.

However, after the Burmese government announced in May that a two-child limit would be enforced on Muslims in Rakhine state, she denounced the policy. “It is not good to have such discrimination,” she told the media. “And it is not in line with human rights either.”

Now the issue is spilling over to neighboring countries. Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims have clashed in violent incidents in Malaysia and in Indonesia in recent weeks.

Democratic Indonesia, with its population of almost 240 million, is the largest and most populous Muslim nation in the world. Indonesia also has been fostering Burma’s growing engagement with the wider world. But Indonesian leaders want the Burmese government to rapidly and peacefully resolve any conflict that could risk winning new support for Islamists in Indonesia itself.

Anifah acknowledged at the ASEAN conference that the OIC had expressed concern that ASEAN’s Muslim-majority nations were not doing more to resolve the problem.

‘Echoes of apartheid’

Meanwhile, the violence against the Rohingyas continues. The Burmese government admitted on July 1 that rioting occurred the previous day between Buddhists and Muslims in a coastal town in Rakhine state where 800,000 Rohingyas live, according to government spokesman Ye Htut.

Three days earlier, two Rohingya refugees were shot dead and six wounded when security forces opened fire to scatter a crowd that had gathered at a military base in Kyein Ni Pyin, a camp for displaced Muslims located in the Pauktaw area of Rakhine state, news services reported.

The Burmese government has sought to defuse growing international criticism of its failure to end the violence and the much more deeply rooted traditional discrimination against the Rohingyas. The government has launched an official inquiry into the violence, and is working with an international relief effort for the thousands of refugees.

However, Jonathan Head of the British Broadcasting Corp. [BBC] reported on June 30 after a visit to Rakhine state, “Not much has changed for the Rohingyas. In fact, their already tenuous status in Burma … appears to be weakening.”

“Some improvements have been made to the camps, but they are limited,” Head reported. “Enough food is supplied, and the government has made a start building elevated long-houses to protect the Rohingyas from the rain. … Their camps quickly become muddy quagmires every time it rains, which it does every day now. … And the ban on travel means Rohingyas cannot go to hospital for treatment, even to have babies.”

“Burmese officials justify these restrictions on grounds of security. But the way they are applied to just one group has uncomfortable echoes of apartheid in South Africa,” Head wrote.

A dilemma for government

Head reported that the popular and rising Rakhine Nationalities Development Party – one of the largest in the Burmese parliament – takes the position that even if the central government yields to international pressure and tries to return Rohingya refugees to their homes in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, the local majority Buddhist population would not permit it.

Head acknowledged many examples of Burmese troops under orders protecting small Muslim communities from attacks. However, those Muslim Rohingya villagers “can’t leave. Even if they were allowed to, they fear attacks by their Buddhist neighbors,” the BBC correspondent wrote.

The conflict therefore continues to put the Burmese government in a dilemma. The government cannot afford to ignore calls from the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, and from two of its strongest allies in ASEAN – Malaysia and Indonesia – to end the violence, resolve the underlying conflict and prevent the ongoing flight of refugees into neighboring nations. But it has to deal with powerful local prejudices and political forces as well.

What can the Burmese government do to stop the violence against the Rohingyas? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.


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Reader Comments


Muhammad Syarif Hidayatullah on 11/04/2014 at 02:24AM

Before I proceed I would like to also say to the Buddhist majority group in Myanmar: what is the use of boycotting Muslims there other than to revel in glory and laugh in happiness? Do you know that your attitude has led you to making a big mistake? God created all things in the world based on proportions and nothing is wasted. Judge the guilty as fairly as possible. If a chicken becomes infected with a virus then you should distance yourself from the virus infected chicken, not all of them. Remember, never think of Islam as a religion that can be taken lightly because Islam is, in reality, highly tolerant, peaceful, a blessing for all of creation, and not a religion that causes trouble. Do not blame Islam but blame those who claim to be Islam but do not follow the Islamic sharia.