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Malaysia’s leader says Rohingya not just a Myanmar issue

Members of the Rohingya community gather in Hyde park to protest against Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, special summit, in Sydney, Saturday, March 17, 2018. Australia is hosting leaders from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations during the 3-day special summit. (Rick Rycroft/Associated Press)

By Trevor Marshallsea 
March 18, 2018

SYDNEY — Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Saturday that the displacement of Rohingya Muslims was no longer solely a domestic issue for Myanmar, as Southeast Asian nations signed a counterterrorism cooperation agreement at a regional leaders’ conference.

Najib made his comments at a meeting of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, being hosted by Australia. The summit has been marked by protests against the regimes of Myanmar and Cambodia.

In a pointed and rare departure from the grouping’s policy of non-interference in the affairs of fellow member nations, Najib said Rohingya refugees fleeing from alleged persecution by Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government were a prime target for radicalization from the Islamic State group.

“Because of the suffering of the Rohingya people and their displacement around the region, the situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar can no longer be considered to be a purely domestic matter,” Najib said in closing comments before the signing of the counterterrorism agreement. “In addition, the problem should not be looked at through the humanitarian prism only, because it has the potential of developing into a serious security threat to the region.”

“Rakhine, with thousands of despairing and dejected people who see no hope in the future, will be a fertile ground for radicalization and recruitment” by the Islamic State and affiliated groups, he added.

Before resuming his seat on a leaders’ panel beside Suu Kyi, Najib said Malaysia was “ready to assist and find a just and durable solution,” as it had with fellow ASEAN nations Thailand and the Philippines on terrorism-related issues.

Myanmar staunchly denies that its security forces have targeted civilians in its “clearance operations” in Rakhine state on Myanmar’s west coast. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace laureate, has bristled at the international criticism. But Myanmar’s denials have appeared increasingly tenuous as horrific accounts from refugees have accumulated.

The Associated Press last month documented through video and witness accounts at least five mass graves of Rohingya civilians. Witnesses reported that the military used acid to erase the identity of victims. The government denied it, maintaining that only “terrorists” were killed and then “carefully buried.”

Malaysia has a large Rohingya population who are considered by the government to be illegal immigrants rather than refugees.

A few hundred meters (yards) from the conference, around 1,000 protesters demonstrated against alleged human rights abuses against Rohingya people, brandishing anti-Suu Kyi placards. More than 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar in recent years. A second, smaller protest was held to condemn human rights abuses in Cambodia attributed to its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Protesters also targeted Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for hosting the conference. Australia is not a full member of ASEAN, but is an active dialogue partner.

“We would very much like to remind the prime minister that many of the hands he’s shaking yesterday, today and tomorrow are hands full of blood,” protest leader Hong Lim, a member of Victoria state’s parliament, said outside Sydney’s Town Hall.

Turnbull hailed as a major breakthrough the signing of the memorandum of understanding on counterterrorism, at a time of increased risk to the region due to militants fleeing Islamic State losses in the Middle East.

The measures include cracking down on the movement of terrorists between ASEAN nations, tightening policing on the cross-border movement of money to fund terrorism, and targeting on-line methods of radicalization and instruction on how to commit terrorist acts.

“We know that ISIL’s operational and ideological influence in our region is growing,” Turnbull said, referring to the Islamic State group. “More fighters will seek to return to our region, and they will return battle-hardened and trained.”

“Our ASEAN friends and neighbors share our interest in regional peace and they share our commitment to respecting international law and that rules-based order which underpins our way of live, secures our prosperity and safety,” he added.

Turnbull said the memorandum of understanding addressed more innovative methods being used to support and fund terrorism, such as moving money through digital currencies and crowd-funding platforms that made it harder to detect terrorism funding.

Internet-based communications, such as encrypted online messaging systems, also make it easier for extremists to instruct converts abroad.

“Those who seek to do us harm use technology as innovatively as any of us can,” Turnbull said. “And they are able to adapt and move in a very agile way. We have to be as fast and as quick as them.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib called on ASEAN members to “step up and intensify cooperation in preventing the spread of terrorist ideologies and to hone even more effective approaches to counter the threats of radicalization and violent extremism in the Asia-Pacific area.”


Associated Press writer Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report.

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