KUALA LUMPUR: The way Malaysia is handling the Rohingya refugees issue reflects the inconsistencies, and the bias, inherent in its refugee policy, according to an opinion piece in Asia Times.
Malaysians, especially non-Muslims, see Prime Minister Najib Razak’s championing of the Rohingya as self-serving, as he has failed to show a similar atitude towards non-Muslims who were or are being persecuted worldwide.
The comment, written by Josh Hong, says Malaysia is also showing it is “a Muslim champion abroad, and an oppressor at home” due to actions seemingly depriving non-Muslim Malaysians of their rights.
Hong, who has spent 12 years working among refugees including Rohingya in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, says although not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Malaysia hosts around 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers, more than a third of whom are Rohingya from Myanmar.
In addition, there are about 50,000 Rohingya who have yet to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
About a year ago, Prime Minister Najib Razak, began to champion the Rohingya cause in an attempt to shore up his support among Muslim Malaysians, Hong says.
“Najib has so far organised at least one massive rally to highlight the plight of the severely persecuted Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, and allowed two street protests to take place in the heart of Kuala Lumpur without the organisers having to notify the police as would otherwise be required under the much criticised Peaceful Assembly Act of 2012.”
Hong says: “To the non-Muslims in Malaysia, Najib’s pledge to help the Rohingya is widely perceived to be self-serving, given the fact that his United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the linchpin of Barisan Nasional, the multinational ruling coalition, has failed to speak up for non-Muslim refugees facing persecution worldwide, such as the religious minorities in Iraq and Pakistan.”
Giving examples, Hong says in 2015, the Najib administration deported three Tamil Sri Lankans “with the full knowledge that they could be at risk of physical abuse amounting to torture upon return, much to the chagrin of the Tamil community in Malaysia”.
Back in 1979, he says, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, then deputy prime minister, had told the media that the government would not hesitate to shoot on sight boat people from Vietnam.
In 1996, Umno’s youth wing stormed a public forum in a Kuala Lumpur hotel on largely Catholic East Timor, then under Indonesian occupation, forcing it to be aborted and resulting in the arrest and detention of organisers and attendants.
The Asia Times opinion piece says one former Umno youth leader later confessed he had done it with Mahathir’s blessing.
“It is thus clear to all that while Malaysia has demonstrated solidarity with Muslim Palestinian and Bosnian refugees over the years, the same cannot be said of non-Muslim refugees worldwide.
“All this, coupled with the fact that decades of Umno dominance and state policies that favour Muslims in general and Malays in particular, has generated considerable antagonism on the part of non-Muslims.”
Just last week, Hong notes, Kuala Lumpur City Hall revoked a permit for an Oktoberfest celebration at a shopping mall following pressure from Islamic conservative forces, despite the fact that only non-Muslims would have been allowed to attend the event.
“It is seemingly trivial issues and overzealousness like this that make non-Muslim Malaysians increasingly cynical towards the effort by the state to launch a crusade on behalf of ‘downtrodden’ Muslims around the world.
“In short, a Muslim champion abroad, and an oppressor at home.”
Hong says ever since the latest crisis in Rakhine state broke out, non-Muslim netizens in Malaysia have been “highly critical of the announcement by their government to take in more Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, as reflected in their virulent Facebook comments”.
“Many see it as a double standard par excellence, while others are deeply concerned Muslim Rohingya would be used as phantom voters in the general election to be held in less than a year from now, to the detriment of the opposition parties.
“Such fears are not without basis, for Mahathir as prime minister once wrested the East Malaysian state of Sabah back from the opposition in the 1990s through what is now infamously known as Project IC, the provision of Sabah identity cards to foreign residents of the state.”
Paradoxically, Hong says, Najib’s Rohingya initiative does not appear to have worked even among the Malays.
While the Palestinian cause and the Bosnian Muslim issue in the 1990s aroused enormous sympathies within the country’s Malay community, Hong says, the Muslim response towards the Rohingya seems to be lukewarm at best.
He suggests several reasons for this: the rising cost of living and a lackluster economy have dampened the zeal for indiscriminate Islamic unity among the Malays; and the potential number of Rohingya refugees is huge, as compared with the few hundreds of Palestinians, Bosnians and Syrians.
He also suggests that it may have also to do with the fact that the Rohingya, “being poorly educated, destitute and dark-skinned, simply do not appeal to Malaysian society at large, unlike Palestinians, Bosnians and, in recent years, Syrians, who have a European-like appearance.”
Hong also says the government’s “ad hoc and inchoate approach” to the refugee issue needs a complete rethink, with a view to signing up to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Convention and Protocol on the Status Relating to Refugees.
“Only then would justice be seen to be done for all who seek refuge in Malaysia, regardless of race, creed, faith and political persuasion.”