Friday, August 18, 2017

Duelling protests as tensions rise between Myanmar and Malaysia

As Malaysia’s prime minister followed through on a pledge to join a demonstration yesterday against treatment of Muslim Rohingya, Myanmar doubled down on its criticism of the “interference” while nationalists protested in Yangon.

Protesters gather at Yangon’s Mahabandoola Park yesterday. Photo: Naing Wynn Htoon/ The Myanmar TimesProtesters gather at Yangon’s Mahabandoola Park yesterday. Photo: Naing Wynn Htoon/ The Myanmar Times

Reports indicated that thousands people including Prime Minister Najib Razak and members of his cabinet joined the protest in Kuala Lumpur.

“There is an article in the ASEAN charter that says ASEAN must uphold human rights,” the leader of Muslim-majority Malaysia was quoted as saying in Channel NewsAsia.” The world cannot just sit by and watch genocide taking place,” he added, while calling on Indonesia to join in solidarity.

U Zaw Htay, deputy director general of the President’s Office, told The Myanmar Times yesterday that the government would issue an official response objecting to Mr Najib’s participation in the protest.

“ASEAN countries should respect the actions of Myanmar on the Rakhine State issue,” he said. “The new government is working on a solution to this issue. And I want to say again that the Malaysian government should respect the ASEAN charter.”

He added that Mr Najib’s actions could stoke religious extremism and amounted to vote-seeking ahead of a Malaysian election expected soon.

The President’s Office deputy director general also criticised the Malaysian media, which he said was not accurately reporting on the situation in northern Rakhine State, where the government has launched a crackdown on suspected militants after a series of deadly attacks on border guard posts starting on October 9.

U Zaw Htay pointed to the creation of two commissions, one advisory and one investigative, as proof that the government was intent on tackling the problems in Rakhine State - and doing so transparently.

Journalists have been barred from northern Rakhine State, making human rights groups’ allegations of abuses against the Rohingya and the government’s counter-claims impossible to verify. Scores have been killed and detained in the crackdown.

In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia last week, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said she “would appreciate it so much if the international community would help us to maintain peace and stability, and to make progress in building better relations between the two communities, instead of always drumming up cause for bigger fires of resentment”.

Channel NewsAsia also reported that at yesterday’s protest in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Najib said he would urge more Malaysians to join the demonstrations to show their disapproval.

“We want to tell [State Counsellor Daw] Aung San Suu Kyi enough is enough!” he told the crowd, dismissing the ASEAN charter’s non-interference clause.

In response to previous criticism by U Zaw Htay, Malaysia’s foreign ministry told The Myanmar Times on December 3 that it viewed with concern the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya and worried that the spill-over effect could impact the safety, security and standing of Malaysia, as Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbour. More than 54,000 Rohingya are registered with the UN refugee agency in Malaysia.

“This is in keeping with Malaysia’s position that this is not a religious issue but an immediate humanitarian concern,” said the statement.

Myanmar’s foreign ministry had already summoned the Malaysian ambassador on November 28 as officials from the country first began voicing concern over the situation in Rakhine State.

“We explained to the ambassador [that he could] submit a report with true facts regarding the Rakhine issue to the government,” said U Kyaw Zeya, director general of the foreign ministry.

An official from Myanmar’s embassy in Kuala Lumpur said yesterday that the Myanmar government had not yet issued any instructions on a change to diplomatic posture in the wake of the Malaysian prime minister’s protest participation.

“Currently, we have announced, for our citizens’ safety, to be careful in the current situation,” said an embassy

Meanwhile, nearly 100 demonstrators including monks and laypeople gathered in front of Mahabandoola Park in downtown Yangon yesterday to denounce Mr Najib. Protesters demanded that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the ASEAN bloc admonish the Malaysian prime minister for not upholding “ASEAN values”, according to U Thu Satetta, secretary of the Myanmar National Monk Union (Yangon) and a leader of yesterday’s protest.

“We will do everything we can, either protesting or sending out signed requests, because we do not want to give even an inch of our country and we cannot accept the fact that they insult our nationality, so even if we need to take up arms, we might do so,” he said.

Protesters held placards with photos of Mr Najib and the words “Condemnation of Malaysia Prime Minister, Don’t Pressure Myanmar Government”.

Outspoken monk and member of Ma Ba Tha U Wirathu also weighed in from Mandalay, issuing a letter.

“The unfair fact is Muslim countries are using a lot of money and unfair techniques and bullying the country of Myanmar to make the world become a Muslim world,” he wrote. Another protest leader, Ko Naung Naung Oo, who is the general secretary of the Myanmar Nationalist Network, rejected international pressure on Myanmar.

“The Malaysian prime minister is pressuring the Myanmar government. I would like to tell the Malaysian prime minister, don’t stand for terrorists. You must know the correct history of Myanmar. I would like to announce to the world that there are 135 Myanmar ethnic groups and there is no Rohingya,” he told those gathered.