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Politics

In crisis, Rohingya refugees have Southeast Asia on guard

Malaysia summons Myanmar ambassador to express concern

A Rohingya woman and children come ashore after boating across a narrow stretch of the Bay of Bengal that separates Bangladesh and Myanmar on Sept. 5.   © Reuters

KUALA LUMPUR -- Countries in Southeast Asia have stepped up efforts to prevent influxes of refugees fleeing violence in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand hope to pre-empt a repeat of the humanitarian crisis that subjected them to international criticism two years ago when they denied, at least at first, entry to thousands of stateless Rohingya arriving in rickety boats.

Malaysia's foreign affairs ministry on Tuesday summoned Myanmar envoy U Sein Oo to convey "grave concerns" regarding the violence. Ministry officials urged Myanmar's government to take measures to address the root causes and to allow for humanitarian access to the affected region.  

"[If] the current situation in Rakhine is not addressed judiciously, it would result in the fleeing of more Rohingya to neigboring countries, including Malaysia," the ministry said in a press release.

Myanmar's military retaliated against the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army following a coordinated attack on police and army facilities on Aug. 25. Members of the Islamic minority who live near the border shared with Bangladesh have been oppressed for decades. They go unrecognized in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. 

Malaysian security agencies have beefed up surveillance along the Thai border. Rural areas along the border are known to be hotbeds for human traffickers who use the forests to hide illegal migrants. Two years ago, Malaysian authorities found over 100 suspected graves in Wang Kelian, in the northern state of Perlis. The graves were apparently dug to bury victims of human trafficking, many of whom were believed to be Rohingyans fleeing upheavals in Rakhine that began in 2012.

Malaysian authorities are also sharing intelligence with their counterparts in Thailand on the possible movement of boats carrying Rohingya, the New Straits Times has reported. Kuala Lumpur is taking the matter seriously; it is trying to gain Tier 1 status in the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons annual report by 2020. Malaysia in July was upgraded to Tier 2 on the four-level watch list after efforts to combat human trafficking were recognized.

In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan, recently met with Myanmar's top military brass for an update about the situation in Rakhine. Min Aung Hlang, Myanmar's commander in chief, assured Bangkok the crisis was subsiding and would cause little impact to its southern neighbors.

"There will not be an influx of Bengali into Thailand because most of the displaced Bengali would go to Bangladesh instead," Prawit told reporters on Tuesday, using the same term as the Myanmar government to refer to the Rohingya.

Indonesia, meanwhile, has joined other countries in urging Myanmar to rein in the violence that forced over 73,000 Rohingya to seek refuge in Bangladesh. As the world's largest Muslim country, many Indonesians empathize with the plight of the Rohingya and have urged their government to introduce a resolution to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Its foreign minister said Indonesia is ready to assist Bangladesh in dealing with the refugee problem on humanitarian grounds rather than financial, according to news reports.

Staff writer Yukako Ono from Bangkok contributed to the story.

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