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Rohingya crisis prompts Malaysia to confront its racial bias

Myanmar's treatment of Muslim minority puts Malaysian government's own racial practices in spotlight

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur

Published: January 23, 2017 03:14 AM GMT

Updated: January 23, 2017 03:16 AM GMT

Rohingya crisis prompts Malaysia to confront its racial bias

A Rohingya Muslim refugee during a gathering in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 4 that protested the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. (Photo by AFP)

Events in Myanmar may be starting to influence Malaysia, a country shaped by over half a century of racial preference and discrimination, and lead it towards building a fairer society.

Last month, Prime Minister Najib Razak spoke in support of the persecuted Rohingya minority and followed that up by attending a rally calling on Myanmar's government to recognize their rights.

The Malaysian government's strong, loud response to the Rohingya crisis is laudable but taxi driver Michael Chou, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian, is unimpressed. He admits though he doesn't know much about the issue.

"The Rohingya? Who are they? Where do they come from? What are they doing here? Why is the government suddenly speaking up for them? Is Najib credible? Does he really want to solve this problem?' asked Chou.

"They don't even let us protest against corruption or question anything happening here so what are they talking about," he said.

Chou was referring to rallies and protests that have erupted in Malaysia calling for free and fair elections in the country. They also called an investigation into massive fraud by Najib until the authorities put down such dissent with arrests and prosecutions. The government then went on to pass new laws to curb further dissent.


Racist policies

Chou's questions highlight the ambivalence felt by many Malaysians to the discrimination against the 100,000 plus Rohingya refugees in the country even as the government, civil society and religious groups seek to focus attention on their plight.

But such questions, spurred by the open debate on Myanmar's treatment of the Rohingya, may compel the Malaysian government to re-look at and perhaps scrap its own racist policies to create a more inclusive Malaysian society, or risk sounding insincere.

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Syed Hamid Syed Albar (the Organization of Islamic Cooperation special envoy to Myanmar) and former Malaysian foreign minister told a forum on solidarity with the Rohingya that it was important to create an understanding how different ethnic groups can co-exist.

"The very first principle of democracy is inclusivity. To be inclusive. Today the world is a multi-cultural world, is a pluralistic world. Is a world of pluralism," said Syed Hamid.

But Malaysian human rights activists say such pronouncements from the government are just "hot air" if they do nothing to phase out institutional favoritism in Malaysia itself.

For decades now, Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim, multi–ethnic country has given preferential treatment to its Bumiputera population, a term used to describe the Malay race and indigenous groups. Along the way the country's minorities including non-Muslim indigenous communities were marginalized.

This is the main reason many remain skeptical the government truly cares about what is happening in Myanmar.

"Malaysia had a golden opportunity as the ASEAN chair in 2015 to bring the Rohingya issue to the table but they didn't. Our prime minister carefully avoided the subject and it resulted in Myanmar striping the Rohingya of their rights," said a local activist who asked for anonymity.

"Where was the commitment then and where is it now? We are still not a signatory to the U.N.'s Refugee Convention and the Rohingya are being treated abominably right here in Malaysia by all levels of society," said the activist.

"There is a huge [rights] loophole that the government has not addressed. They don't see it as urgent. Some of those invited to speak on national television [about the Rohingya] were instructed not to touch on possible solutions," he said.


A single rights standard for all

Jerald Joseph of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission said at a forum on the persecution of the Rohingya earlier this month that there must be a single rights standard for all as "we are all people".

"This is Malaysia's problem also. We struggle with double and triple standards of rights because there are different rights for different communities [in Malaysia] and that's why I think we need to call [out] the lie," Joseph said Jan 8.

"Every problem now we just put on terrorists and because of that we need to go in and take away rights. Everybody must have more rights not less," he said.

The Malaysian government says its focus is to prevent the spread of militancy in the region.

Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on Jan. 14 that the Rohingya issue must be addressed immediately to prevent the persecuted minority from being exploited by unscrupulous people, mainly militants.

"I am worried that they [terrorists] will quickly find refuge outside Syria and Iraq, if not in southern Thailand or the southern Philippines, [they will] go to the Rohingya area in Rakhine," Hishammuddin told reporters.

"We know that Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups have pledged their support towards Daesh [another name for the so-called Islamic State] and when they fail in Syria and Iraq, they have to look to other areas for protection or create the Islamiyah territory in other places, there is no reason why we would be exempted from their plans," he warned.


Searching for viable solutions

Meanwhile, civil society groups in Malaysia are keen to build a momentum on Najib's support for the Rohingya cause and push him to come up with viable solutions to their plight in Malaysia.

Satyam, a retired businessman now spending his free time as an Uber driver, said he is encouraged by the Malaysian government's loud stand on the Rohingya issue but is also curious if it is just something "our leaders have taken advantage of." It will die down after the next election, he predicts.

"What most people want to know is are we moving in the right direction," Satyam added.

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