Too many, too close to home, analysts say about Malaysia’s reluctance to aid Rohingya

A Rohingya migrant woman, who arrived in Indonesia by boat, carries a bottle of drinking water as she walks inside a temporary compound for refugees in Kuala Cangkoi village in Lhoksukon, Indonesia's Aceh Province May 17, 2015. — Reuters pic
A Rohingya migrant woman, who arrived in Indonesia by boat, carries a bottle of drinking water as she walks inside a temporary compound for refugees in Kuala Cangkoi village in Lhoksukon, Indonesia's Aceh Province May 17, 2015. — Reuters pic

KUALA LUMPUR, May 18 — Putrajaya’s refusal to accept Rohingya refugees now unlike Bosnian Muslim or Palestinian asylum seekers then is likely because of the former’s close proximity to Malaysia and the huge numbers fleeing Myanmar, analysts said yesterday.  

Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said Bosnia in southeastern Europe is located much further away from Malaysia compared to neighbouring Myanmar, pointing out also that the Bosnian Muslims seeking refuge here were far fewer than the Rohingya fleeing to Malaysia.

“With the Palestinians and Bosnians, the situations were totally different. They are from faraway and in small numbers, so humanitarian gestures in welcoming a number of them are almost harmless both domestically and internationally,” Oh said in an email interview with Malay Mail Online.

“The greatest fear is indeed their large numbers. If only a few of them were to come ashore, neighbouring countries would be more willing to accept them either as refugees or permanent residents,” Oh added, referring to the Rohingya.

Over 1,000 Bangladeshi migrants and Rohingya refugees landed in Langkawi on May 10 and were subsequently sent to the Belantik detention centre in Kedah. Migrant activists estimate that some 8,000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya remain stranded at sea after people smugglers abandoned ship following a Thai crackdown on human trafficking.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement on May 8 that some 25,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis boarded smugglers’ boats between January and March this year, almost double the number over the same period last year.

In comparison, Migrant Working Group coordinator and researcher Alice Nah wrote on news portal The Malaysian Insider in 2009 that Malaysia had offered refuge in 1994 to 350 Bosnian Muslims fleeing ethnic conflict during the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who heads libertarian think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said the close proximity of the Rohingya makes Malaysia reluctant to help compared to previous generous efforts for Bosnian and Palestinian refugees.

“Unfortunately the Rohingyas are too close to home for many people. With Palestinians and Bosnians, we did not have to host them in the thousands here in Malaysia, so many people are happy to give money to help them over there,” he said in a text message to Malay Mail Online.

The political analyst said it is crucial for Malaysians to change that mindset and immediately offer aid to the migrants who are believed to be starving and sick at sea.

Merdeka Center director Ibrahim Suffian said the ethnic differences of the Rohingya could be a contributing factor to Putrajaya’s reluctance to help the group that UN dubs as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

“We have a feeling of ethnic differences. There is something that has to do with the perception with the Rohingyas being less desirable. For Muslims and Malaysians, apart from the few good souls, there are ethnic differences that play a factor,” Ibrahim told Malay Mail Online.

“Like Indonesians and Thais are familiar to us with their culture, they’re somewhat alike. Whereas Rohingyas, they’re different. It’s not racism and bigotry, but it’s different; they don’t have that sense of nearness or familiarity,” he said.

International newswire AFP reported yesterday diplomats and analysts as saying that Asean’s pledge of non-interference and its failure to curb Myanmar’s systematic abuse of the Rohingya — who suffer state-sanctioned discrimination and are denied citizenship despite having lived in Myanmar for generations - have contributed to the migrant crisis in the region.

Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have been turning away boats of migrants back out to sea as the International Organisation of Migration reportedly criticised the Southeast Asian nations for playing “maritime ping-pong” with people’s lives.