Bangkok: Plans are underway for a “food flotilla” to sail from Malaysia to Myanmar’s strife-torn western Rakhine state with emergency supplies for Rohingyas.
The shipment of 200 tonnes of rice, medical aid and other essential supplies appears to counter the long-held protocol of the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) that countries should not interfere in each other’s internal affairs.
Escalating violence in Rakhine since October has left scores dead, villages razed and forced more than 34,000 Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh in what human rights groups say could amount to crimes against humanity by Myanmar security forces.
The Myanmar government denies the allegations.
Predominantly Muslim Malaysia has been the most outspoken of Myanmar’s neighbours over the treatment of Rohingyas, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority of more than one million in the Buddhist-majority country.
Almost 200,000 Rohingyas displaced by previous violence live in Malaysia, many of them labourers on building sites.
The flotilla is being organised by the Malaysian Consultative Council of Islamic Organisations and a coalition of non-government organisations from the region, the Star/Asia News Network reported.
Zulhanis Zainol, the organisation’s general secretary, indicated the flotilla does not yet have permission from Myanmar’s government, which for months has blocked UN and other agencies delivering emergency supplies to the violence-hit areas.
He said the flotilla could face three scenarios – being allowed to land and hand over supplies, being told to turn back from Myanmar waters or being attacked by Myanmar security forces.
“Access to the area is completely blocked. This resembles Gaza as victims are squeezed between military attacks and closure of the border to a neighbouring country,” Mr Zulhanis was quoted as saying.
“As a result all access is completely blocked and humanitarian agencies are not allowed to enter,” he said.
Organisers of the flotilla say up to 200 people may travel on the ships, including NGO members, doctors, medical teams, politicians, religious leaders and crews.
The scheduled departure date from Malaysia’s Port Klang is January 10, with the ships making a two-week journey.
Myanmar agreed to grant “necessary humanitarian aid” to Rakhine on December 19 after Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Yangon of Malaysia’s “grave concern” over violence allegedly carried out by Myanmar’s military.
Myanmar has previously vaguely committed to allowing access.
Malaysia’s presentation to the foreign ministers who were called together by Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi called for “unimpeded humanitarian access to affected areas and an effort by ASEAN to co-ordinate humanitarian assistance to the region”.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has shaken ASEAN’S policy on non-interference, maintained since the group was formed in 1967, accusing Myanmar of “genocide” and launching a personal attack against Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate.
Mr Najib’s critics say he is attempting to shore up his support among mainly Muslim Malays at home to deflect criticism over multibillion-dollar corruption allegations involving the state sovereign wealth fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which the prime minister set up and oversaw through an advisory committee.
Myanmar has warned Malaysia to respect the principle of non-interference as tensions have risen between the two nations.
“According to ASEAN principles, a member country does not interfere in other members’ internal affairs. We have always followed and respected this principle,” Zaw Htay, a spokesman for the Myanmar president’s office, was quoted as saying by the Myanmar Times earlier this month.
“We hope the Malaysian government will continue to follow it.”
In September, Ms Suu Kyi invited former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to head a commission to try to find solutions to the violence in Rakhine, where according to the UN Rohingyas have for decades been subjected to a campaign of grinding dehumanisation, including being stripped of their citizenship rights and rendered stateless in 1982.
The Myanmar government and military claim the Rohingyas are in fact illegal Bengali immigrants, but Bangladesh also does not recognise them as its citizens.
The latest violence was sparked by an October 9 attack on Myanmar police border posts, which killed nine officers.