KUALA LUMPUR – Ever since the Vietnamese boat people landed in the east coast more than four decades ago, Malaysia has been a magnet for refugees and asylum seekers.
After receiving waves of Vietnamese boat people from mid 1970s to 1980s, Malaysia was also the host for refugees from other countries, albeit in smaller numbers, South Thailand and South Philippines in the 1990s and the Sri Lankan Tamils in late 2000.
On May 10, a total of 1,158 Rohingyas from Myanmar landed on the Malaysian shores and 7,000 more are believed to be enroute to Malaysia. The number of those who landed would have been bigger if not for the other boat that had veered off to Acheh, Indonesia.
And once again Malaysia could not avoid the influx of the refugees on humanitarian grounds, a core principle of the country’s diplomacy.
A U TURN ON THE INITIAL TOUGH STAND
Malaysia and Indonesia were initially reluctant to receive the Rohingya boat people but days later they backtracked on their stand and offered temporary shelter to the 7,000 Rohingyas still at sea. Both nations also agreed that they will be resettled or repatriated within a year.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak even had ordered the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Maritime Enforcement Agency to assist MERCY Malaysia in dispatching humanitarian aid to the Rohingyas, whether through sea or land.
Najib too pointed out Malaysia could make use of its vast experience in effectively addressing the refugee problem including its success in resettling more than 250,000 Vietnamese refugees in third countries.
Malaysia’s political stability and the fact that it is an Islamic nation was the draw for Rohingyas to make their way in droves to Malaysia. However, surely Malaysia will not be able to accommodate all of them.
And for the Rohingyas making their way to Malaysia to seek a better life is nothing new, as they have been making their way here since the 1990s.
So far there are 45,000 Rohingyas in Malaysia with UNHCR status with 20,000 more yet to be registered.
It is an open secret that thousands of illegal Rohingyas are occupying areas around Selayang Wholesale Market near here. They also brought along their animosities and conflict back home with many killed in clashes in Selayang and brutally murdered in Penang.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE VIETNAMESE AND ROHINGYA REFUGEES
However, in seeking a solution for the Rohingya refugee problem, their background can prove to be a setback.
The Vietnamese and Rohingya refugees though went through the same nightmare, putting their life at stake in running away from violence and oppression in their own backyard.
However, their historical background and circumstances were different altogether, said Associate Prof Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani from the International Studies Centre at Universiti Utara Malaysia.
He elaborated further that the Vietnamese refugees were recognised as asylum seekers by the United Nations (PBB) as they wanted to escape persecution and the political upheaval back in their country.
“The asylum seekers are then resettled in third countries or repatriated to Vietnam after the country welcomed them with an open heart when the condlict was over,” he said to Bernama recently.
Moreover, the Vietnamese refugees were better off unlike the Rohingyas, making it easier for the UN to resettle them in third countries. The Rohingyas are infact neither accepted nor recognised in their own land and there are no third countries ready to accept them. Therefore, they may not have anywhere else to go except stay in Malaysia.
SEEKING A SOLUTION WITHIN THE ASEAN SPIRIT
However, is it proper that only Malaysia and Indonesia shoulder the burden in finding a solution for the Rohingya refugee crisis? As the episode involves four ASEAN member states – Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand – can the matter be resolved within the ASEAN spirit?
ASEAN through the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community has given the assurance to settle humanitarian issues faced by the ASEAN members. The ASEAN Politics-Security Community has been trying to address this problem through the human trafficking angle.
It is not an easy matter to solve as the ASEAN member states have failed to implement effectively human trafficking laws.
Throughout history, the world has seen the refugee crisis repeating itself especially in nations riddled with conflicts. The Palestinians for example fled to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan due to the atrocities of Zionist on their land.
The present IS conflict also witnessed the exodus of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan not only to their neighbouring land but as far as to Australia.
Mohd Azizuddin stressed that this is a difficult problem to solve and would only come to an end when the conflict ends, like how we saw the Vietnamese returning back to their home when the situation returned to normal back home.
A REFUGEEâ€™S STRUGGLE
Author Ali Jusoh had described in detail the anguish and suffering experienced by Vietnamese refugees who fled to Malaysia in his novel â€œBidongâ€.
Millions of Vietnamese fled their country after Saigon fell into the hands of North Vietnam Communists in 1975.
The 252,390 refugees who made it to the Malaysian shores between 1975 and 1990 were placed in Pulau Bidong, Terengganu. However, during their perilous journey they had to endure severe hardships such as dehydration, starvation and infectious diseases.
The Rohingya refugees who arrived in Malaysia suffered the same plight. But unlike the Vietnamese refugees, they suffered a double blow, having to first endure inhumane treatment at the hands of human trafficking agents.
Their journey to Malaysia were filled with starvation, fear, horrific abuse and death.
Vietnamese refugees were accorded accommodation in Pulau Bidong. Rohingya refugees, however, are placed in temporary shelter at the Belantik Detention Depot in Sik, Kedah.
The Vietnamese refugees were eventually repatriated or resettled in another country. Rohingnya refugees, on the other hand, do not seem to have the luxury of such options as yet.
THE FATE OF A RACE
What is it like, to have to endure severe hardship because of your ethnicity?
The faces haggard, their bodies riddled with the pain of disease, hunger and dehydration. It is not hard to get an idea of the ordeal undergone by the Rohingya refugees stranded off the coasts of Langkawi, by merely looking at them.
The Rohingyas are one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar, with a population of some 1.33 million. They are mostly Muslim.
Although they have inhabited the Rakhine district for the past few hundred years, they are still considered immigrants and denied citizenship by the Myanmar government, based on a 1982 law.
Their skin colour and facial features match the Bangladeshis because they are related to the Bengalis who reside in the neighbouring district of Chittagong, Bangladesh.
This has caused the ethnicity of Rohingyas to be called into question, resulting them in being unwelcomed and treated as stateless â€œBengalisâ€.
According to Amnesty International, the Rohingyas continue to suffer the gross abuse of human rights by the Myanmar Junta military since 1978.
Some 840,000 of the Rohingyas in Rakhine have been denied humanitarian aid like water and food supply while 140,000 Rohingyas have been placed in detention camps, with 300,000 suffering the fate of refugees in Bangladesh without access to food or medicine. – BERNAMA