Malaysia's criticism of Myanmar over the Rohingya issue has been vocal, especially in recent years. Government leaders have spoken out through different platforms including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). However, things have visibly changed in recent months, particularly following the Covid-19 pandemic. Kuala Lumpur has not only changed its tone but also its policy and actions toward the people it had stood up for.
Its actions have indicated that Kuala Lumpur has transformed from being a vocal critic of violence on the Rohingya community into a country of refusal.
One important reason why Malaysia has been sympathetic to the cause of Rohingyas is because of its shared beliefs in Islamic teachings. But it is intriguing as to why Malaysia has decided to change its position toward the Rohingyas whose fates are still very much precarious. Of course, one widely reported reason is the fear of contracting Covid-19 through the refugee population.
Though it is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, Malaysia has for years been one of the favourite destinations for Rohingyas fleeing the oppression they are experiencing in Myanmar.
Strong words to support the Rohingya cause
At the 34th ASEAN summit in Thailand last year, Malaysia strongly condemned violence against the Rohingya community. During a meeting with his Southeast Asian counterparts in Bangkok on June 22, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Bin Abdullah called for the "perpetrators of the Rohingya issue to be brought to justice."
Earlier on November 13, 2018, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad slammed Myanmar and said, "It would seem that Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to defend what is indefensible… They are actually oppressing these people to the point of killing them, mass killing."
During an interview with Anadolu Agency in July 2019, Mahathir Mohamad also said, "They (the Rohingyas) should either be treated as nationals, or they should be given their territory to form their own state… massacre or genocide is involved and Malaysia is against genocide and the unfair treatment of the citizens of Myanmar."
In January 2017, former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called on Muslim countries to lead international action to address the plight of Rohingyas. In his opening statement to the OIC gathering in Kuala Lumpur on January 19, 2017, Razak said, "Far too many people have lost their lives in Myanmar. Many have suffered appalling deaths, and those that have lived through the atrocities have witnessed or endured unspeakable cruelty. That in itself is a reason why we cannot keep silent."
From sympathy to abandonment?
In a sharp contrast from its usual words of sympathy and concerns, Malaysian Defence Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob on June 9, 2020 said that boats carrying Rohingya refugees were not welcomed to Malaysia and instead pushed them back to Bangladesh. The minister warned that "the Rohingya should know, if they come here, they cannot stay."
In early June this year, the National Task Force of Malaysia said it had detained 396 people attempting to sneak into the country illegally since May, along with 108 boat skippers and 11 suspected smugglers. During the same period, it also turned away 22 boats with some 140 immigrants trying to enter the country illegally.
As well as its refusal to accept the boat people, Malaysia's tone has changed with a heightened form of hate speech and xenophobic treatment in recent months. The surge in hate speech is believed to have been triggered partly by claims that the Rohingyas were demanding citizenship and other legal rights in Malaysia. The Malaysian government's decision in early April to turn back boats carrying Rohingya refugees also contributed to the increase in hate speech.
The rise in hate speech was followed by an anti-Rohingya banner put up in front of a mosque in the state of Johor, which read: "We are not welcoming Rohingya... We do not need you here."
On May 11, an open letter signed by 83 organisations urged the government to combat online hate speech and xenophobia. The letter said, "We urge you to act immediately to address the recent proliferation of 'hate speech' and violent threats against the Rohingya community and to ensure the incendiary rhetoric does not trigger discriminatory acts or physical attacks." However, the letter seemed to have made no significant difference.
Threat of Covid-19 pandemic?
The Covid-19 pandemic has led to an increase in xenophobia against Rohingyas. Recent incidents of refugee boat turn-backs and immigration raids of undocumented migrants have become an increasing concern since many of them live without legal protection in a society where they are often viewed with suspicion.
Moreover, due to the movement control order (MCO) amid Covid-19 pandemic, public health concern has become an excuse to stop saving lives at sea and a display of political muscle on immigration control. Hence, the Muslim-majority Malaysia which initially welcomed the Rohingyas has, in recent months, hardened its rhetoric dismissing the displaced people as illegal immigrants.
While Malaysia has a right to protect its national interest and security, it can still show magnanimity in responding to the refugee crisis. The failure of ASEAN to respond to the influx of refugees and provide a basic human rights framework has now demonstrated the failure of every ASEAN government in their unified vision of "one ASEAN community"
Dr Nehginpao Kipgen is an associate professor, assistant dean and executive director respectively at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, and O.P. Jindal Global University. Diksha Shandilya is a research intern at CSEAS.