YANGON • Myanmar's government lashed out at Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak yesterday, accusing him of using the Rohingya crisis unfolding in Rakhine state for his own "political interests".
The premier of Muslim-majority Malaysia has been a vocal critic of Myanmar since violence erupted in the north of the state in October, when the army started hunting attackers behind deadly raids on police border posts.
Since then, at least 66,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine state to neighbouring Bangladesh alleging security forces are carrying out a campaign of rape, torture and mass killings that Datuk Seri Najib has said amounts to "genocide".
On Thursday, he used an extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to call for an end to the "unspeakable cruelty" being unleashed against the Muslim minority. His comments drew an angry response from Myanmar, which denies the allegations of abuse of the Rohingya, instead blaming "fake news" for spreading unfounded accusations.
Mr Najib is "using Myanmar for his own political interests, against the principles of Asean", the deputy director of Myanmar's Foreign Ministry, Mr Aye Aye Soe, told AFP, citing the South-east Asian bloc.
"They criticise us without hesitation based on news reports from different places, including news from unreliable sources, without discussing the issue like a good neighbour. We are deeply sorry about this."
Analysts say Mr Najib's embrace of the Rohingya is at least in part aimed at burnishing his image after allegations of massive graft linked to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad - a claim he denies.
His criticism of Myanmar marks a rare public spat between members of Asean, which prides itself on non-interference.
The treatment of the Rohingya, a stateless group denied citizenship in Myanmar, has galvanised anger across the Muslim world.
Many among Myanmar's Buddhist majority call them Bengalis - shorthand for illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Malaysian officials have said that the issue affects their country as when purges happen, thousands of the Rohingya would sail south to Malaysia to seek refuge.
In Malaysia, there were more than 135,000 people with United Nations refugee status from Myanmar, with some 55,000 of them Rohingya, at the end of October.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said on Thursday the government aims to provide training in semi-skilled areas for the Rohingya holding UN refugee cards. This would allow them to apply for Temporary Employment Passes. There are some 151,000 refugees and asylum-seekers registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK