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Politics

Muslim bloc urges Myanmar to end humanitarian crisis in Rakhine

Malaysia's Najib warns that the Rohingya issue could destabilize the region

OIC Secretary-General Yousef Al-Othaimeen addresses a special meeting on Rohingya in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.

KUALA LUMPUR -- The multinational Organization of Islamic Cooperation said on Thursday that Myanmar must stop the oppression of its Rohingya population and prevent extremist groups from fanning religious hatred in Rakhine State, home to most of the country's minority Muslim population.

In a one-day special session of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers, held in the Malaysian capital, the 57-member bloc adopted a resolution urging Myanmar to stop human rights abuses against the Rohingya people, who account for a fraction of the country's predominantly Buddhist population.

"[We urge] the government of Myanmar to take effective measures to prevent their recurrence, implement the rule of law, provide security for all and uphold the rights of each individual to live and move without fear and persecution based on their religion or ethnicity," the resolution read.

The meeting, which was initiated by Malaysia, follows a December gathering in Yangon of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Violence erupted in early October when Myanmar authorities launched sweeping military operations in response to armed attacks by Islamic militants on policemen in the Maungdaw region, in northern Rakhine bordering Bangladesh. The crackdown, which has drawn allegations of abuses including torture, rape and the destruction of more than 1,500 Muslim homes, has prompted more than 65,000 Rohingya refugees to flee to Bangladesh.

An estimated 120,000 Rohingya displaced by earlier waves of sectarian violence in 2012 and 2013 still live in makeshift camps scattered around Rakhine. Tens of thousands more have fled the country by boat over the last few years, often falling prey to human traffickers.

Message from Najib

Thursday's gathering, as well as the key role of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in organizing it, appears aimed at drawing further international attention to the issue. Diplomats said it was also aimed at intensifying international pressure on Myanmar's government, both to prevent the Rakhine crisis from threatening regional security and to divert attention from domestic issues in Malaysia.

"We fear that if the situation of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine State is not properly addressed, militant elements could infiltrate and possibly radicalize this oppressed community," Najib said in a keynote address at the OIC meeting. "This should concern the international community as a whole, as the threat of a new home for terrorist groups has the potential to cause death and destruction well beyond this region."

Some analysts said Najib's calls at the OIC meeting were in line with the country's tradition of criticizing Myanmar on issues related to its Rohingya population. "But the more strident voices we hear now are somewhat surprising, and one wonders about the long-term objectives of Malaysia's foreign policy in the region," said Jacques Leider, an author and expert on Myanmar, particularly on Rakhine issues. "One wonders if this [Najib's criticism] is more for domestic [Malaysian] consumption. By comparison, Indonesia -- which has the world's largest Muslim population -- is pursuing a successful and determined, yet quieter, policy of engagement and humanitarian support."

Malaysia, which currently hosts about 56,000 displaced Rohingya, became a key destination -- along with Thailand and Indonesia -- for Rohingya fleeing violence in Rakhine several years ago. Kuala Lumpur recently pledged 10 million ringgit ($2.25 million) in humanitarian aid to construct schools and medical facilities in Rakhine several years ago.

In its resolution Thursday, the OIC called on Myanmar to allow unimpeded access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Rohingya in the affected regions.

In a bid to stabilize the situation in Rakhine and curb domestic criticism of the authorities' strong-arm tactics in pursuing suspected insurgents, the Myanmar government has set up several committees and investigative commissions. Heading the overall effort to respond to international criticism is State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader. She has appointed former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan as chair of an advisory committee tasked with examining the social and economic problems in Rakhine.

Suu Kyi's government has rejected most international claims of police and military brutality against the Rohingya. "We have to retort to some accusations with truth," she said on Jan. 3 in a rare comment on the Rakhine situation.

Ruffling feathers

Still, Yousef Al-Othaimeen, the OIC's secretary-general, said at Thursday's gathering that -- based on a United Nations report published last June -- there is "evidence of a sustained and organized campaign of violence and intimidation perpetrated against Rohingya Muslims inside Myanmar." 

Najib sent a stronger message to Myanmar. "For a start, the killing must stop," the Malaysian leader said. "The burning of houses must stop. The persecution of your fellow men and women, simply on the grounds that they are Muslim, must stop."

Such blunt words will likely ruffle some feathers among officials in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar. Both Malaysia and Myanmar belong to ASEAN, whose 10 member states have long promoted a policy of noninterference and consensus-based decision-making.

Najib nevertheless felt compelled to speak out. "I wish to emphasize that if the domestic affairs of a country results in instability which affects other countries in the region, they cannot be expected to remain silent," he said.

After the meeting, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told reporters, "I think they cannot ignore the voice of 1.6 billion Muslims," referring to the combined population of the OIC member nations.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is sending officials to Yangon on Friday to convey the government's concerns over the plight of the Rohingya.

Even so, some experts on Rakhine say the OIC has come late to a crisis that has been festering for years.

"The ongoing Rakhine State crisis is not just an issue of human rights violations against a Muslim community, it is about decades of deterioration of communal relations under an authoritarian regime," said Leider. "... [T]he bitter irony for the Rohingyas today is that hundreds of thousands of Muslim migrants who identify as Rohingyas have lived in OIC member countries (most prominently in Saudi-Arabia and Bangladesh) for decades without ever enjoying much OIC support, with little Muslim solidarity and being rarely offered a track to apply for citizenship despite living there for generations."

Nikkei staff writer Thurein Hla Htway in Yangon and Gwen Robinson, NAR chief editor, contributed to this article.

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