Myanmar gingerly receives Malaysian aid for Rohingya

Boxes of foods carried by Malaysia ship display while Malaysian officials stand in a ship at Thilawa port Feb. 9, 2017, in Yangon, Myanmar. (Credit: AP Photo/Thein Zaw)

A Malaysian ship docked in Yangon, Myanmar, yesterday to drop off 2,300 metric tons of humanitarian aid for Muslim Rohingya in northern Rakhine state and Bangladesh. Amid protests, accusations of political expediency and initial resistance from Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Muslim-majority nation is standing by its call to end the Rohingya crisis.

The ship, carrying food and emergency supplies worth $1.1 million, was originally bound for Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state. There, Malaysian organizers hoped to distribute some of the aid to the state’s 1 million Rohingya, before delivering the rest to refugees in Bangladesh.

But Myanmar rejected the proposal in December. Later, in January, officials said they would allow the shipment, but it had to dock in Yangon, where the government would take charge of distributing the aid “without discrimination” to Buddhist and Rohingya communities alike.

“We have to respect Myanmar’s sovereignty,” Razali Ramli of 1 Putera Club Malaysia, a nongovernment organizations that helped organize the shipment, told the Associated Press. “We hand over the aid in good faith.”

This comes just as the government, under the leadership of Nobel laureate Aun San Suu Kyi, faces intense international outrage for “the very likely commission of crimes against humanity” in its recent security crackdown on Rohingya, according to a U.N. flash report. Myanmar has said they will investigate the allegations.

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But the inhumane treatment of Rohingya is nothing new. For decades, they have been at bloody odds with Rakhine’s Buddhist majority, and the government denies them citizenship and basic rights, because they are considered illegal Bengali migrants. Those who have not fled to the jungles are confined to squalid internally displaced persons camps or heavily guarded villages.

At Yangon port on Thursday, Buddhist protestors met the Malaysian aid ship, holding signs rejecting the name, “Rohingya,” which they believe lends “Bengalis” false legitimacy as an ethnic group.

“We don’t mind that they want to support people who are suffering. But we don’t want political exploitation of this issue by calling them Rohingya,” U Thuseiktha, a Buddhist monk, told Reuters. “The name Rohingya doesn’t exist.”

Aid and access has been routinely restricted since the security crackdown began in October, following an insurgent attack on a border post. Since then, more than 69,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh. But Bangladesh is a reluctant caretaker as well, with recent proposals to move the Rohingya refugee to a flood-prone island.

Like Myanmar, Bangladesh initially denied the Malaysian ship entry last week. But it reversed its decision the next day “as a result of the good relations between Malaysia and Bangladesh,” Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

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Malaysia has played a vocal role in recent months as a regional advocate for the Rohingya. In January, Prime Minister Najib Razak told foreign ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) that the crisis was no longer confined to Myanmar. He warned that the flood of refugees could destabilize the region, especially if the Islamic State took advantage of the situation

“The government of Myanmar disputes the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing,’ but whatever the terminology, the Rohingya Muslims cannot wait,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

Although Malaysia refuses to sign the U.N. convention on refugees, about 90 percent of U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) cardholders in Malaysia are from Myanmar, of which more than 56,000 are Rohingya, according to the latest figures. On March 1, Malaysia will also begin a pilot allowing Rohingya refugees legal employment in the country. The offer is only for UNHCR cardholding Rohingya who have passed health and security screenings and no others.

Following Malaysia’s meeting with the OIC, Myanmar’s foreign ministry said in a press release that it was “regrettable…that the sensitive issue has been exploited to promote a certain political agenda.”

Any such accusation was just “speculation,” Abd. Aziz Sheikh Fadzir, a lawmaker from Najib’s party, told Reuters at the docking in Yangon.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.