Photo: Phalinn Ooi/flickr
Myanmar’s ethnic tensions converge with anti-migrant sentiments in Malaysia
In the early morning hours of June 11, an unknown protestor in Yangon arranged a row of 11 red roses against the tiled wall separating the Malaysian Embassy compound from the street, a memorial to Myanmar citizens killed and injured after a series of attacks over the past two weeks around Kuala Lumpur. The official toll from the violence stands at four killed and seven injured since May 30, although the accuracy of these numbers remains disputed. Malaysia’s apparent failure to protect Myanmar citizens there has incensed people back home.
The four killed were apparently all Buddhist, according to Kuala Lumpur’s deputy police chief Datuk Amar Singh Ishar Singh, and this revelation has served to inflame anti-Muslim and nationalist passions on the Internet in Myanmar. On Tuesday, Facebook users across the country “blacked out” their profile pictures in solidarity with “our people in Malaysia;” the Facebook campaign has been enthusiastically promoted by Zaw Htay, a representative of the President’s office known for his social media savvy.
Inter-religious conflict in Myanmar, largely targeting Muslim minorities, has erupted sporadically across the country over the past year. The mainstream media in Myanmar routinely repeats claims that Myanmar’s Muslims intend to “Islamize” the country, while many Muslims feel they are on the receiving end of a state-sponsored campaign to deny them their fundamental rights.
The radical Buddhist “969 movement,” in particular, has received considerable attention for its role in encouraging anti-Muslim violence. Its supporters claim that it is a non-violent movement in support of Buddhism, but its sharp anti-Muslim rhetoric has been widely criticised by progressive voices, both in Myanmar and abroad, for catalysing sectarian tension. Reconciling these divergent worldviews does not appear to be on the horizon, and two fundamentally conflicting narratives explaining the origins of the violence have emerged as a result.
The attacks in Malaysia over the past two weeks indicate that these narratives have migrated with the Myanmar diaspora, where they have become enmeshed with Malaysia’s own internal political dynamics and anti-migrant narratives. Long the economic basket case of Southeast Asia, Myanmar has one of the highest proportions of citizens living and working abroad in the world. Decades of internal conflict have also granted Myanmar the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s largest exporters of refugees. Over the past year, thousands of stateless Rohingya, in particular, have arrived in Malaysia, fleeing a campaign of violence that displaced more than 100,000 people over a six-month period last year.
According to MS Anwar, a Rohingya journalist based in Petaling Jaya, a group of inebriated Myanmar men – allegedly sporting 969 insignia – were witnessed wandering around the Selayang Market in Kuala Lumpur’s northern suburbs on the evening of May 30, openly mocking Islam and Muslims. The following day, unknown machete-wielding assailants killed a vegetable seller from Myanmar, the first in a string of attacks against Myanmar people in which both Buddhists and Muslims have fallen victim.
The police have been quick to blame other Myanmar migrants for inciting the violence, but there is no hard evidence to prove that this is the case.
The battle between Myanmar’s Buddhist and Muslim narratives has been superseded by tensions within Malaysia over the migrants in its midst, and the police have used the attacks as a pretence to round up illegal immigrants. “We have taken steps to prevent further bloodshed by picking up more than 1,000 Myanmar workers, mainly in Sentul, Cheras, Brickfields and Dang Wangi,” Singh told the New Straits Times. “Those who do not have valid documents will be detained.”
Allegations that the ruling Barisan Nasional supplied foreign citizens with fake ID cards to vote in recent elections have served to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment in recent months, although Malaysia has long had a complicated history over its reliance on cheap labour from its poorer neighbours. “The police tell the Burmese community that both Buddhists and Muslims only come to Malaysia to find money,” MS Anwar told The Edge Review. “Honestly, nobody knows who is doing the killing.”
The Malay Mail, a local tabloid, published a series of xenophobic and alarmist articles following the killings at Selayang, linking Myanmar migrants to drug smuggling and petty crime, going so far as to caption a photo with a particularly malign assertion: “Some local employers, while agreeing that Myanmar nationals are a nuisance, said at the end of the day, they are needed as workers.”
That this kind of rhetoric is socially acceptable speaks to deep anti-immigrant undercurrents prevalent within Malaysian society; the repurposing of the RELA Corps (Volunteers of Malaysian People) serves as a case in point. Originally founded as a volunteer “home defence” paramilitary force in the wake of race riots in the 1960s, more than 10 percent of Malaysians today are members. The organization has since primarily switched its focus to rooting out illegal immigrants.
Caught in the Malaysian immigration dragnet are the estimated 400,000 Myanmar expatriates – legal and illegal – living in the country. Zealous immigration crackdowns are particularly problematic for the Rohingya – many of whom do not have formal refugee status with the United Nations – because their lack of citizenship in Myanmar makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Many have taken to procuring fake UN documents, because they are left with few other options to attain even a minimal level of security.
Expatriates from Myanmar are feeling doubly squeezed by longstanding anti-foreigner sentiment in Malaysia and their country’s newfound notoriety in the Muslim world. “Living and studying here, I feel insecure. It’s tough,” said Swan Pyae, a first-year university student from Yangon who has been living in Kuala Lumpur since February. “At least I look like I’m Malay – until I say something.”
Last Thursday, a crowd of Myanmar demonstrators gathered outside their embassy in Kuala Lumpur, demanding Myanmar’s ambassador to Malaysia, Tin Latt, do more to protect Myanmar citizens in the country.
Myanmar’s crony business elite has not wasted a prime opportunity to get some public relations value out of the situation. Tay Za, Myanmar’s richest man, set aside $100,000 on Tuesday to help Myanmar citizens in Malaysia return home, and has offered returnees free passage on his airline, Air Bagan. Zaw Zaw, the chairman of Max Myanmar Group, donated $20,000 to a foundation that provides migrant workers with free funerals, and Myanmar Airways International, majority-owned by transport and banking magnate Aung Ko Win, has offered half-price tickets and $50,000 towards repatriation efforts.
A delegation led by Myanmar’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Zin Yaw, arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday to address the concerns of Myanmar citizens living in Malaysia. It should come as no surprise to anyone, however, that no Myanmar entity has done anything to make life easier for the estimated 80,000 Rohingyas currently living in legal limbo in Malaysia.
Lost in this collision of existential narratives are the stories of Myanmar migrants in Malaysia as individuals. “There are many rumours floating around, but the police need to control the situation,” said Ko Tun Tun, President of the Burma Campaign Malaysia, a local activist group. “I am a Burmese Muslim and I have many Burmese Buddhist friends. We have no problems.” Unlike Myanmar, where he claims those responsible for ethnic violence “can do what they want,” Ko Tun Tun lauds the relative law and order provided by the Malaysian state. But it remains to be seen if the security services will use this power to aid migrants or criminalise them; based on their actions over the past two weeks, it is unlikely that the lives of people from Myanmar in Malaysia will get any easier in the near future.