Malaysia, Don’t Use Burma to Distract from Disquiet at Home

By Aung Zaw 5 December 2016

RANGOON — Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak had strong words for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as he led a rally in Kuala Lumpur to show solidarity with the Muslim Rohingya in Arakan State.

His comment to the baying crowds of “enough is enough” aimed at the State Counselor has risked a diplomatic fissure with neighboring Burma.

Before Najib joined the rally, a terse exchange of words between the two governments ended with a Union government spokesperson reminding Malaysia not to interfere in Burma’s internal affairs.

Najib responded to this request at the rally, asking “do they [Burma’s government] want me to close my eyes? Want me to be mute?”

“There is an article in the Asean charter that says Asean [members] must uphold human rights. Are they blind? Don’t just interpret things as you choose,” he ranted.

These words, spoken in the capacity of Prime Minister, are unacceptable. Read the following very carefully.

Najib, like many Asian government leaders, is not a human rights crusader. He is a politician accused of corruption.

As a Muslim, it is likely he has concern for the plight of displaced fellow Muslims in northern Arakan State, also known as Rakhine State.
It is also suspected, however, that he has his own political agenda.

Najib has faced a political crisis at home since media reported investigations that he may have embezzled US$1 billion, including from state investment fund 1MDB.

Is Najib a scandal-plagued politician doing whatever he can to gain popular support and divert attention from massive corruption allegations that have gripped his administration for years?

Last month, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad threw his weight behind a massive rally calling for Najib’s resignation. Pundits have said a showdown is imminent.

Burma must respond to Najib in an appropriate manner and not cross the line as he did.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with limits to her political power, has been concentrating her energy on tackling the sensitive issue of Arakan State.  She is not a saint, she is a politician and she has made blunders.

Many burning issues are on her shoulders but she has not been sitting idly watching the Arakan State situation develop. She has said that to resolve the Arakan issue is a priority.
In May, she formed and chaired the Central Committee for the Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development in Arakan State.

Subsequently she appointed former UN chief Kofi Annan to lead an advisory commission—to her dismay she faced fierce protest from local Arakanese lawmakers and the Burma Army for appointing an outsider.

Arakanese politicians continue to disapprove of the State Counselor’s handling of the situation in northern Arakan State.

Aung San Suu Kyi has remained quiet on the issue, as she knows that once she opens her mouth about it she is not going to win anything from anyone.

In Singapore last week she told Channel News Asia that the government has managed to control the situation in Arakan.

She said relations between the two communities have not been good and she is not going to take sides.

In opposition, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was accused of silence amid the nationalist (and anti-Islam) 969 Movement that also used her marriage to a foreigner as a reason to block her leadership in the run-up to the 2015 election.

But who helped fund that movement? Even some western diplomats in Rangoon refused to make the connection between the former regime and well-funded extremist monks going after Muslims.

Last week in Singapore she also called on the international community to help the country maintain peace and stability between the two communities in Arakan “instead of always drumming up calls for, well, for bigger fires of resentment, if you like.”

She is not wrong in this respect. There are very few media and commentators who explain the nuances and complexities of the decades-old issue between two communities.

Rohingya Muslims are facing serious humanitarian issues in one of the poorest states in Burma.

There is a risk of growing radicalization as seen by the attacks on security forces in October.

Buddhist Arakanese and other minorities in the state feel that international organizations and western media are wrong to focus on the plight of Rohingya without explaining the complex history of the area.

The downtrodden Buddhist Arakanese feel oppressed—they are on the defensive.

There has been no independent investigation and access to journalists and aid groups is blocked. Allegations of serious human rights violations—including extrajudicial killings and rape—have not been verified.

Last week UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng said the allegations “must be verified as a matter of urgency” and urged the government to allow access to the area.

He said that “if they are true, the lives of thousands of people are at risk. The reputation of Burma, its new government and its military forces are also at stake in this matter.” He is correct.

The Rohingya’s plight has garnered international attention. Meanwhile, Buddhist Arakanese have resisted outside influence and objected to international involvement but also feel that western media and advocacy groups are completely ignoring their grievances.

The Burma government must coordinate among agencies and security forces to relay a consistent message.

Recent allegations of migrants claiming to be Rohingya continuing to cross the Bangladesh border suggest corruption and human trafficking rings are persistent.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi needs to balance her complicated relations with leaders from the powerful armed forces.

The majority of the Buddhist Arakanese population supports the Burma Army’s clearance operations in northern Arakan State.

No one knows how successful her administration will be in solving this issue; it is unlikely to happen during this current government.

At least Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has shown the political will to tackle the Rohingya issue—past regimes simply denied its existence.

Regionally or globally, the Rohingya issue should not be a punching bag for politicians.

Prime Minister Najib—if you are looking for a fall guy to distract from your own political mess, please look somewhere else. You will not find any in Burma.