Malaysia’s Humanitarian Response To The Rohingya of Myanmar

A group of Malaysian government and non-government organisations have pledged to send an aid flotilla bound for Rakhine state in Myanmar. The decision comes in the wake of devastating attacks upon the Rohingya population of Rakhine, who have faced ongoing persecution as a Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country. While Myanmar officials have claimed that there is full humanitarian access to the area, international human rights groups have documented the severe lack of medical and food supplies being delivered to the Rohingya population. With the aid flotilla set to depart Malaysia on 10 January, the government of Myanmar must allow the unfettered delivery of humanitarian relief to Rakhine. However, the government has continued to deny human rights violations committed against the Rohingya by the military, and instead claims that the aid flotilla is a serious breach of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) principle of non-interference into a state’s domestic affairs. If the plight of the Rohingya is to improve, Myanmar must accept humanitarian aid, recognise the Rohingya as citizens, and cease its military campaign against the minority that verges on genocide. Malaysia, with ASEAN and the international community, must continue to put pressure on Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to uphold the rights of the Rohingya, and uphold her own status as a Nobel laureate.

Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific stated: “The Myanmar military has targeted Rohingya civilians in a callous and systematic campaign of violence. Men, women, children, whole families and entire villages have been attacked and abused, as a form of collective punishment.” Djamin further stated: “While the military is directly responsible for the violations, Aung San Suu Kyi has failed to live up to both her political and moral responsibility to try to stop and condemn what is unfolding in Rakhine State.” Speaking on the subject of the aid flotilla, Zulhanis Zainol, secretary-general for The Malaysian Consultative Council of Islam Organisations, stated: “If they [Myanmar] do not allow us then we won’t enter, but it will have a bad impact on the issue of humanitarian rights. We are bringing food and needed items, we are not coming to create tension.” In response, a spokesperson for Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: “Myanmar welcomes any humanitarian aid coming from an ASEAN country bilaterally… but whatever assistance is provided should be balanced and go to both [Buddhist and Muslim] communities. It should not discriminate one against the other. We don’t want anything that will disrupt peace and stability there.”

But Rakhine state is far from peaceful. Organised violence against the Rohingya by government forces has resulted in the deaths of thousands and forced nearly 35,000 Rohingya to flee the country. While the newly formed civilian government should have ultimate control of the country in theory, in practice, the military retains much control. But Suu Kyi, herself repressed during Myanmar’s military rule, must recognise the inalienable rights of all populations within its borders. Importantly, she must acknowledge the citizenship of Rohingya people and condemn the actions of her own government and military forces that continue to persecute the ethnic minority. While she invited Kofi Annan to resolve the conflict in Rakhine, a positive first step, Suu Kyi and her government must show a concerted political will to end the conflict.

Regional pressure, led by Malaysia and other member states of ASEAN would demonstrate the urgency of the issue and its influence upon regional cohesion and relations. At a bare minimum, the situation in Rakhine, which can be seen than no less than a scorched earth campaign against the Rohingya, should trigger the United Nations to implement measures aimed at resolving the crisis. The actions of the Malaysian government and non-government organisations is a leading example of how outside actors should provide humanitarian assistance and condemn human rights violations, when the state responsible, is unable or unwilling to do so.

Caitlin Biddolph