PETALING JAYA: Malaysia’s decision to repatriate more than 1,000 undocumented migrants to Myanmar on Tuesday will have limited effect on its regional standing and ties with international powers, say experts.
The European Union and the US have expressed concern over the deportation, which came hours after a court order halting the plan, against the backdrop of a military coup in Myanmar and concerns that refugees and minors would be among those sent home.
And while non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Malaysia and abroad have condemned the deportation, Asean and its member states have stayed silent on the matter, largely due to the regional bloc’s long-standing emphasis on non-interference in the internal affairs of member countries.
James Chin, the director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute, said the government would escape with just a slap on the wrist from the EU or the US, while Thomas Benjamin Daniel, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), said he was confident Asean would not get involved as the repatriation was an “internal affair” between two sovereign member states.
“Of course, the US and EU will be unhappy about this, but they have known Malaysia’s position for a very long time,” Chin told FMT.
“The problem is that Malaysia is afraid there will be mass migration from Myanmar because of the crisis there.
“So I think while the EU and the US will tell Malaysia they’re not happy, they’re not going to take any action.”
Myanmar has been gripped by protests since the army seized power on Feb 1, with a defiant civil-disobedience movement filling streets across the country to push for the restoration of democracy, where they have been met with use of force by the junta.
At least three anti-coup protesters have been killed in demonstrations so far, reports said.
Apart from concerns that minority communities fleeing conflict and persecution in Myanmar would be deported on Tuesday, Amnesty International said at least three United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) document holders and 17 minors who had at least one parent still in Malaysia would be repatriated.
Chin added: “Of course, Malaysia’s image has been damaged because there is strong international sympathy for these refugees, and also I think people are surprised that the government moved very quickly despite the court order.
“But within Asean, I don’t think it’s that much of a big deal. The reaction will be fairly muted, at least officially, although the NGOs will be unhappy.”
Asked whether the government had taken a risk against its reputation by going ahead with the deportation, he said: “I think in terms of the Malaysian leadership, they just wanted to get rid of them (the Myanmar nationals) as soon as possible.”
Daniel, meanwhile, noted that there is a risk the junta will use the deportation to burnish their credentials both locally and abroad.
At the same time, he said, Malaysia might take a hit among anti-Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) protesters fighting for a return to democracy in Myanmar, who have already called out the governments of Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia for their perceived support for the military.
“Among those who advocate for the rights and protection of refugees and asylum seekers, the deportation, in spite of a court order, will not go down well,” he said.
“But if you’re talking about governments, not much. That said, governments do not always have the luxury to act on idealism. They have to make do with what they get.
“Malaysia will have to deal with whoever is in power in Myanmar, no matter how they got there.”