Rohingyas in Malaysia

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File picture shows a view of a Rohingya settlement in Bandar Baru Sentul, Kuala Lumpur June 13, 2021. — Malay Mail photo

THE Unity Government of Malaysia has been very active in terms of foreign relations, as exemplified by the Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. He has met with the heads of state of the Republic of Indonesia, the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam, the Republic of Singapore, the Kingdom of Thailand and Turkey.

Making new friends or renewing personal friendships, and maintaining rapport with each one of them, all a smart move indeed – all for the good of Malaysia.

Maintaining cordial foreign relations with as many countries as possible is crucial to this nation, if Malaysian leaders and diplomats wish to play a meaningful role in the international arena. It does us no harm if we continue to pursue the national policy of ‘friend to all, enemy of none’.

New image building

However, in our effort to improve our country’s international image, we must be seen to have our own stance with respect to certain issues, while actively participating in the campaign for the adoption of the 5-Point Peace Plan for Myanmar initiated by Asean as a group two years ago.

Policy on asylum seekers

One issue at hand is the presence of a large number of Rohingyas in Malaysia. What do we do with them?

The Borneo Post of Feb 7, 2023, quoting Bernama, reported the Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil as having said that the ‘Rohingya refugees in Malaysia have become an issue as their numbers have swelled to hundreds of thousands’.

The minister has suggested that the media practitioners need to discuss regional issues including the presence of the Rohingyas.

Taking the cue from this statement, I would confine myself to referring to those Rohingyas who had fled the Myanmar’s Rakhine State to Malaysia several years ago. These people had been ill- treated by their own government there.

Under the United Nations (UN) Refugee Convention 1951 and its Protocol of 1967, these people would have been registered as refugees, but Malaysia is not obliged to register them as such, with the privilege of employment and education for their children.

Why? Because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. In other words, technically, these Rohingyas are illegal immigrants cum asylum seekers, awaiting transfer to a third country. Malaysia is temporarily hosting and protecting them on humanitarian grounds.

Every day, everybody is scanning the world map to see if some other country out there is able and willing to offer these unfortunate souls a permanent place to live and to survive.

So far, however, no third country, not even any in the Middle East, has come forward to offer an alternative home for any of them.

Alternative strategy

Until then, Malaysia is left with holding the baby, a real problem on our hands which must be solved sooner rather than later. How long can this country sustain the responsibility of protecting a large number of people whom a fellow member of Asean has not even accepted as its citizens?

Malaysia and Myanmar must be proactive – to be lateral in their thinking, if necessary. And the other Asean countries must see this as one of the means by which to achieve the objective of bringing peace to Myanmar.

Within this framework, Malaysia should initiate a direct initiative on its own. This involves cementing much closer relations than it is now with the junta holding power in Myanmar, like it or not.

While we disapprove of the violations of human rights allegedly committed by the junta on their own people, we must be bold enough to hold a heart-to-heart talk with their top leaders – like friends do.

I do not think this strategy can be regarded as Malaysia’s ‘interference in the internal affairs of a member country of Asean’. Each Asean country is free to establish and maintain bilateral relations with one another, the closer the better.

True, we disdain power-grabbing via guns anywhere in the world, but in this particular case, we cannot afford to join Great Britain, the US, the European Union and Canada to impose sanctions on Myanmar.

Sanctions do not always work; when they do, they are like chemotherapy – the cancerous cells are destroyed along with the good cells.

File photo shows Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing making a speech during a defence and security council meeting in Naypyidaw. A talk should be held with the junta leadership about how Malaysia may be able to help the Rohingyas. — AFP photo

Regularise status

Either Malaysia signs up as a party to the UN Refugee Convention and its Protocol and treats the Rohingyas as refugees with all the attendant obligations on our part under the Convention; or else, we let the Rohingyas stay put and eventually, grant them citizenship, should they choose to become Malaysian citizens.

However, should the latter happen, expect severe criticism from those Sarawakians of mixed marriages (between Sarawakians and Indonesians) who have been waiting for years for approval of their citizenship applications.

Meet with the junta

Meet and persuade the junta to accept the asylum-seekers as citizens of Myanmar upon the promise and even the undertaking by Malaysia that those of them who had to flee to Malaysia for safety would be legally employed here. And, equally important, that their children can attend Malaysian schools. As it is now, these ‘stray children’ are on the way to becoming an unemployed, unemployable underclass.

Towards this end, a bilateral agreement between Myanmar and Malaysia is necessary. As citizens of a country (ie Myanmar) they would be employed legally in Malaysia. That would be good for the economy of Myanmar when the workers could send money home while Malaysian employers would have a clear conscience knowing that they are employing foreign workers legally.

Anyway, many of them are already ‘employed’ by some factories and restaurants in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. The status of these may be regularised too.

As Malaysia needs many more workers, this approach would be a solution to worker shortages in the country – a mutually-beneficial arrangement indeed.

Is this not an innovation, a better solution to the problem that has plagued Malaysia for the past couple of decades, than a situation where illegal immigrants are employed when they are not supposed to be employed?

In terms of ‘Malaysia Madani’, this is called ‘Compassion plus Innovation’, two of the core values of the Madani, as expounded by the Prime Minister.

We have already rendered a humanitarian service to the Rohingyas, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, but there is a limit to what we can do.

Charity begins at home, do not forget. We must deal with the Rohingya crisis by ‘catching the bull by the horns’; otherwise, their number may well swell further.

Expect more asylum-seekers to land on our shores when the sea conditions between Cox Bazaar and Penang are favourable for ocean travel.