All the bravado by Najib over the Rohingya cannot mask the fact that these refugees are barred from working in Malaysia and their children not allowed to attend school here, writes K Haridas.
The situation on the ground that Rohingya refugees are faced with here will make any Malaysian embarrassed.
All the show and bravado and the fact that Najib led a public rally to focus on the issue faced by the Rohingyas in Myanmar only confirms his need to play the religious card. This he did also to rally support for himself at the Umno general assembly. Next, he sends the army chief to visit Myanmar.
Does rallying in the name of religion make you more religious? Perhaps this is so for Umno and Pas members. Such events are another distraction from the challenging issues facing the discredited Najib in relation to serious fraud and money laundering issues relating to the 1MDB fiasco. Has either of these parties over the years raised this issue in Parliament?
Over in Myanmar
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The Rohingya issue has been there for several decades. The same can also be said for the isolationist policies of the earlier army-led Myanmar government prior to 2015. They have only recently emerged out of isolation and now have an elected representative government.
Two years ago, I was in Myanmar exactly a year before their elections in November 2015. No one denies the challenges faced by the Rohingya in Rakhine state.
All sorts of speculation whirled around, and the Rohingya issue was also then on the table. Other issues related to the laying down of arms by various armed groups in areas represented by different tribal and religious groups. The tension between the army and democratic groups also could not be ignored. In addition, a party representing the army was also engaging in the democratic process.
An armed conflict was ongoing, and the issue was to dialogue, enter into peace agreements, engage in a time-line for the surrendering of arms by existing armed groups fighting the army and come to an understanding so the elections could proceed.
It was a long and challenging journey from an army-controlled state to democratic elections in Myanmar. Questions relating to building trust and reconciliation were crucial.
We also had the opportunity then of meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi in her home. During the discussions, it was clear that that the Rohingya issue was one that needed addressing. To expect so much from her so quickly is to ask for the impossible. She has paid a price for Democracy and her commitment to humanity comes through in all that she shares.
Yet the politics of reality requires some temperance with patience and justice. Several interests have to be balanced and at this nascent stage of democratic evolution, she stands in need of support and engagement. Our own experience of where we are now after nearly six decades of democracy should temper us with some patience.
Yet, Suu Kyi comes across as a genuine leader with integrity and as someone concerned for all the different groups within the state of Myanmar. She shoulders great expectations both from her people and the international community.
There are also many disparate groups within Myanmar, and the government is challenged in different sectors. Myanmar needs help and assistance, and it is sad that Malaysia is playing politics with a fellow Asean member.
Extremist Buddhist groups are also a challenge. Currently out of the 440 seats in parliament about 110 seats are reserved for the army, and their views on this issue remain polarised. With international pressure and the work being undertaken by Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary General, with regard to the Rohingya, I am sure what is right will eventually emerge.
Rohingya children here not allowed to attend school
Let us at the same time take a hard look at where we stand on the Rohingya issue. We have thousands in the country. We know of the tragedy relating to human trafficking and the several bodies of illegal migrants from Bangladesh and Rohingyas who were found around the Malaysia-Thai border.
Our own police and immigration personnel were suspected to be involved with these events. We were assured that a report would come out but so far, nothing. Then suddenly we woke up to realise the plight of our ‘Muslim ummah’ whom the Rohingya represent and decided to start a protest. This was a shameless case of exploiting religion for personal political benefit.
We came across a battered Rohingya mother with her four children. The eldest was a daughter, 12, followed by two sons, ages 10 and 8, and the youngest daughter, 4. They were refugees holding UNHCR identity cards. The mother was fearful that her husband would find out where she was. The UNHCR helped as much as possible.
We then thought of helping the eldest girl by securing her a place in a school. No school wanted to take her. The government schools were clear with a ‘no’ while the private schools were fearful of their licence to operate. The notion that the right to education was a human right was not understood. What is the plight of all the Rohingya children in our midst?
In the end, we placed the two boys in an orphanage, and they were also afraid as these two were Muslim children and the authorities at the orphanage were fearful of any complaints stating that they were not been given the required religious studies. In our compliance-driven society, there is very little compassion.
While the UNHCR assisted with looking after the youngest girl, we got the eldest admitted in an international school and secured part-time employment for the mother. A group of us [not Aliran] raised RM20,000 to educate the eldest for nearly two years.
As luck would have it, this family was then selected to resettle in the United States. We helped them as they went through the interview processes and eventually succeeded in departing for the States. They now seem settled and are getting on with their lives. One must be grateful for what the US is doing in a practical sense.
During this period, we went to the Myanmar education centres in Puchong and elsewhere and realised the challenges these refugees and immigrant workers faced in Malaysia.
Lack of sincerity
It is all good to shout for the cause and profess our moral high ground when, in reality, any Malaysian would be ashamed at how we as a nation treat both illegal immigrants and migrant workers in this county.
This is why Malaysia is placed in the Tier 2 watch list and, with the levels of corruption in our midst, this makes it even more difficult to manage. It is all rhetoric and glamour and pointing the finger at the faults of others while not taking responsibility for events at home.
Poverty is a form of violence and within this climate and atmosphere the challenges are immense. When people do not have the right to work, then to exist they take part in anti-social activities. By our very lack of an organised approach, we breed such inequalities, and the corresponding negative social behaviour that results from this harms us in return.
The political rally exhibition that we witnessed, the rhetoric that is expressed is all part of a show that politicians exploit. If you are not engaged with the realities on the ground it is at best an example of moving from the absurd to the ridiculous. We are so blind to our own credibility gap and how this highlights our lack of sincerity over the Rohingya issue.