KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 2 ― An escalating series of violent incidents in Myanmar that reportedly cost the lives of hundreds of Rohingya last week was an emotional development that caused thousands of them to flood Malaysia’s national capital on Merdeka eve in a protest against their own government.
On August 30, police officers arrested 44 ethnic Rohingya after thousands of them protested against the Myanmar government outside the Myanmar embassy and also near Ampang Park.
Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organisation Malaysia president Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani told Malay Mail Online that while Islamist party PAS and Malaysian Consultative Council for Islamic Organisation (Mapim) made the call for protest, the huge turnout of the Rohingya were due to their own initiative.
“About 4,000 of them came, and they came on their own. Even more people could have turned up, but some buses were stopped by the police and the individuals were not allowed to alight the bus to join the protests,” he said.
While reports estimated the violence, which started on August 25, as having claimed hundreds of lives, Zafar Ahmad believes almost 100,000 Rohingyas have been killed in the past week due to the violence there involving the Myanmar military forces.
Myanmar has refused to recognise the Rohingya people as ethnic minorities and citizens, and they remain one of the most persecuted minorities in the world over decades.
Over 1.1 million Rohingyas are estimated to live in the Rakhine state in Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh.
Ethnic Rohingya Community Of Arakan Malaysia chairman Mohd Rafi said the Rohingya community nationwide received instructions from Mapim to hold a protest in front of the Myanmar embassy over the alleged genocide being committed in their homeland.
“We got instructions from Mapim on August 28 through WhatsApp. They contacted all our groups and Rohingya in Malaysia travelled here to protest.
“But when we got here, the police didn't allow us to head to the embassy, it was blocked and Rohingya from outside of Kuala Lumpur did not know where else to go, that's how we ended up blocking the road at Tabung Haji,” said the Rohingya community leader who only wished to be known as Mohd Rafi.
Speaking to Malay Mail Online, Mohd Rafi was quite apologetic over the actions of many of his countrymen who were arrested for allegedly causing trouble.
He explained that many of his countrymen at the rally have lost entire families and were left bereft of everything. He even witnessed the 15-year-old boy who attempted suicide by dousing himself in petrol.
“All they wanted to do was to express their grief and when they weren't allowed to do that, they lost control of their emotions. We community leaders lost control over them. We are very sorry and we understand that the police were only doing their duty.
“But please understand, my people were not picking fights with the police or Malaysians, they're just grieving right now and can't control themselves,” said Mohd Rafi who added that the police behaved fairly at the demonstration and were not abusive.
The community chairman also made a call for lawyers who would be willing to step up and help represent the 44 Rohingya people held in police custody.
Filmmaker Mahi Ramakrishnan, who made a documentary about the plight of the Rohingya community before, said that the violence in Rakhine in the past week is a matter of concern, and that a “few hundred people have lost their lives” as a result.
Even though she did not personally witness the events that transpired during the rally, Mahi said that there is now a need for Malaysia to once again take a stand on the situation in Myanmar.
Last year, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak labelled the the violence in Myanmar as “genocide” and even participated in a public rally here in solidarity with the Rohingya.
“The PM must speak up and show his solidarity with the Rohingya in light of recent events.
“Malaysia was instrumental in bringing Myanmar back into the Asean fold, and international intervention is now necessary to bring an end to the killings,” Mahi added.
Lawyer Eric Paulsen, who has dealt with Rohingya refugees extensively, said instead of stopping the protest, the government should have helped facilitate it as they did with other gatherings such as Bersih and the Red Shirts.
“It makes no difference whether a foreigner or a Malaysian wants to hold a rally here because human rights is a universal concept. Our citizens have protested in other countries before. Look at Bersih,” said Paulsen who added that the government should have looked at the cause of the rally in the first place.
Stating that the bigger issue at hand is the death of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya at the hands of the Myanmar military, the very least the government could have done was to help facilitate a peaceful demonstration.
“The key word here is peaceful. If it's a peaceful demonstration, we should have allowed it. They are not demonstrating over a petty issue, this is about the lives of their loved ones back home. This is about genocide,” said Paulsen.
About 18,000 Rohingyas are reported to have fled to Bangladesh to escape the violence in the last week.
In 2015, almost 25,000 Rohingya people were stranded at sea as they attempted to flee violence in Myanmar, causing a refugee crisis in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia and Indonesia both agreed to provide temporary refuge for the Rohingya community.