Najib Razak’s Obsession with Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis

8 February 2017 Jarryd de Haan, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, sent aid on a flotilla bound to Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar (Burma) on 3 February. The aid was organised by Malaysian Muslim groups as well as local foreign aid groups and will see five hundred tonnes of supplies including rice, noodles and hygiene kits unloaded in Yangon Port in Myanmar on 9 February before setting off to Teknaf, Bangladesh. In a speech he gave to accompany the departure of the flotilla, Najib stated ‘This is a historic moment … a noble effort that shows that all the pain and suffering of Rohingya in Myanmar will not go ignored … We hear their pain, those who have been raped, murdered and burned alive.’ The flotilla was initially planned to land and distribute aid in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, but Myanmar insisted that the aid be delivered to Yangon where authorities can distribute the aid among both Muslim and Buddhist communities.


Najib has criticised the Myanmar Government’s handling of the Rohingya crisis since violence escalated in October. According to a recent report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, testimonials by Rohingya Muslims fleeing through the northern Rakhine State border into Bangladesh frequently reported violations including: Extrajudicial executions or other killings, including by random shooting; enforced disappearance and arbitrary detention; rape, including gang rape, and other forms of sexual violence; physical assault, including beatings; torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; looting and occupation of property; destruction of property; and ethnic and religious discrimination and persecution. The report also alleges that these violations were perpetrated by members of the Myanmar security forces (Myanmar Armed Forces, Border Guard Police and/or the regular police force) and Rakhine villagers (some of whom had been given weapons and uniforms), adding that this recent wave of violence is unprecedented in the state of Rakhine. A separate report by the International Crisis Group notes that the violence follows an emergence of a new Muslim insurgency in northern Rakhine State.

Najib’s vocal criticism of Myanmar’s handling of the Rohingya crisis, which at times was directed towards State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, could be seen as a way for Najib to shore up his support from Malaysian Muslims. Following last year’s corruption allegations, which were covered by Future Directions International, showing support for the Rohingya Muslims could serve to restore some of Najib’s credibility in the eyes of the Malaysian populace, which is approximately sixty per cent Muslim. The Rohingya crisis is not a new discussion point for Najib. In 2015, the Prime Minister also used his speech at the 29th Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur to draw attention to the Rohingya, adding that ‘The migrant issue should be resolved at ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) level with assistance from other countries and international bodies as needed’. Najib also went as far as leading protests on 4 December against the “genocide” of the Muslim Rohingya minority, a clear move to rally the support of the Malaysian public behind his prime ministership.

The international reception to Najib’s activism has been less than satisfactory for the Malaysian Prime Minister. On 5 December, a coalition of Muslim civil society groups wrote an open letter to Najib condemning his protests. The letter stated, ‘We find the rally led by Malaysian Prime Minister was nothing but aiming at the political interest of Malaysia’s ruling party … We affirm that the unfortunate situation facing Myanmar needs not, and should not, be exploited for self-interest and political purposes.’ ASEAN has also been unresponsive to Najib’s call to action, with Indonesian President Joko Widodo refusing to get involved and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen stating that any ASEAN involvement would interfere with the sovereignty of Myanmar. Poor reception from the international community, however, may not have an effect on the legitimacy of Najib’s campaign among the Malaysian populace. Appearing as one of the most vocal Muslim leaders to stand up for the plight of the Rohingya Muslims could serve as a strong campaign platform for the upcoming 14th Malaysian general election to be held by 24 August 2018.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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