Once embraced by Malaysians, Rohingya now fear attacks with a rise in xenophobia

Rohingya refugees receive goods from volunteers in Kuala Lumpur on April 7, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

KUALA LUMPUR - Alam Syofik came to Malaysia two years ago in the hope of a better life after fleeing a brutal military crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state in Myanmar in 2017.

But the safe haven for the Rohingya that Malaysia once seemed to offer has turned into hell for him and his peers, as hostility against them has reached new heights amid fears over the coronavirus pandemic that has afflicted poor migrant communities and xenophobia.

"I've been randomly spat on and shouted at so many times, I can still take it. But nothing beats the fear of being threatened with murder just because I am Rohingya," the 37-year-old man staying in Petaling Jaya told The Straits Times.

"Some locals are not shy to say they'd 'love' to kill me and it doesn't matter whether I understand where this is coming from or not. I'm sorry, but I'm very scared, it brings back memories of escaping from Rakhine," he added.

His story and the harsh words used against the Myanmar minority group have been repeated many, many times in recent social media platforms, in a sharp about-face by vocal critics in Malaysia's Malay Muslim community.

Malaysia in 2017 opened up its borders to provide temporary shelter for the Rohingya "boat people" as they fled the Myanmar crackdown.

The government, with support from Malaysian Muslims who make up 60 per cent of the population, took in thousands of them that year.

The strong feelings to help the Rohingya, often described as one the most persecuted minorities in the world, became a platform that widened cooperation between two then implacable enemies - Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) just before the 2018 election.

An aid ship filled with food packets and medical kits were sent north to Myanmar and Bangladesh, with volunteers from Umno and PAS filling the vessel.

But today, less than three years later, as many Malaysians struggle to cope with life under the movement control order (MCO), some Malaysians have called for the more than 100,000 Rohingya refugees to be deported.

These voices are also loudly asking the government to stop accepting any Rohingya refugee boats, and prioritise helping Malaysians amid the bleak economic outlook.

The two month-old Perikatan Nasional government, that includes both Umno and PAS, seems to have joined with the critics to attack Rohingya groups that plead for more understanding of their plight.

Home Minister Hamzah Zainuddin said on Thursday (April 30) that Malaysia does not recognise the community as refugees but merely "illegal immigrants", even if they hold the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees identification cards.

"Besides that, the Home Ministry's checks found that the Registrar of Societies has never registered organisations under the name of Rohingya or any ethnic Rohingya in Malaysia," he said in a statement.

"Therefore, any organisations that represent ethnic Rohingya in Malaysia are invalid... and (they) can have taken action against them according to legal provisions," he added.

The strident tones came as Malaysia on Thursday entered its 44th day of partial lockdown that has badly damaged the economy, with mass layoffs expected in coming months.

Activists said the xenophobia has been mixed with fears of a bleak economic future in the immediate term for many Malaysians.

"Malaysian views on the Rohingya community have always been polarising. Whilst many are sympathetic to what is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar, this does not translate to the treatment of Rohingya coming to Malaysia," said Human Rights chief strategist Firdaus Husni of the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights.

She said that some of the public fear and nervousness over the virus "are used to justify xenophobic sentiments against the Rohingya people".

Ms Firdaus said: "In locking our borders, some Malaysians seem to forget that the Rohingya people attempting to come into our borders are not tourists on cruises, they are in boats fleeing for their lives."

Lawyer and former president of National Human Rights Society Malik Imtiaz Sarwar said there is a return of political exploitation of social media, and calculated efforts to manage perception.

"My sense is that the recent events do not really demonstrate a change in attitude towards the Rohingya and Malaysians generally remain sympathetic to their plight. The subject has, however, become politicised with the current Perikatan Nasional government."

He believed that "anxieties and frustrations about living under the MCO and its impact, and resentment about the state of affairs in the country, are being channelled into and projected on to the Rohingya".

The xenophobia seemed to have reached its peak after alleged postings by the president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Right Organisation Malaysia, Mr Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani. The postings which he has said were not written by him demanded equal rights and citizenship for the Rohingya community.

This led to hateful online comments, such as "send them back to where they came from", "if a paramilitary wing is set up to gun them down with machine guns, count me in. Ethnic cleansing is fun", and, "now, we know why the Myanmar government murdered them".

Soon after, a video of a Rohingya man being verbally harassed also surfaced, with the person behind the camera demanding the latter prove his Islamic faith.

In recent weeks, there were at least five petitions on popular petition site Change.org, with hundreds of thousands of signatures gathered calling for the deportation of the Rohingya from Malaysia. These petitions were pulled down by Change.org for hate speech.

Responding to the issue, former premier Mahathir Mohamad urged Malaysians not to hate the Rohingya people, as they are victims of cruelty.

In his latest posting on his blog chedet.cc, Tun Dr Mahathir said that while he understood why Malays now "hate" the Rohingya despite initially being sympathetic to their plight, the authorities' recent decision to turn away a boat carrying some 400 of them was "inhumane".

He wrote that when their numbers began to swell and "there were some things they did which hurt the feelings of the Malays, then the sympathy turned to hatred".

The Malaysian government on April 16 turned away several boats carrying hundreds of Rohingya refugees after giving them food, for fear of undocumented migrants bringing in more Covid-19 cases.

Following that, it was reported that 32 Rohingya were believed to have died on an overcrowded boat stranded in the Bay of Bengal for nearly two months.

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