World Bulletin / News Desk
A Malaysian flotilla transporting aid for Rohingya Muslims may be turned back by force if it enters Myanmar waters without official approval, according to local media.
Irrawaddy online magazine reported the president's office as warning Malaysian NGOs not to deliberately fuel flames sparked by ongoing violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine State, emphasizing the importance of not exploiting religion for political purposes.
“The first thing is, don’t exploit religion. The second thing is, respect the government. The third one is, review what the real purpose of the plan is,” office spokesman Zaw Htay was quoted as saying.
“If they do as they wish without approval from Myanmar authority, that will be their mistake, not ours,” said Zaw Htay, adding that the government had so far received no official request for the ship to enter Myanmar waters.
The Malaysian Consultative Council of Islam Organizations (MAPIM), a coalition of non-governmental organizations, has organized the shipment of rice, medical aid and other essential supplies for the minority Muslim community in conflict-torn Maungdaw district in Rakhine.
MAPIM’s secretary-general, Zulhanis Zainol, has said that the flotilla faces three scenarios on arrival -- being allowed in to hand over the aid, told to turn back, or being attacked by Myanmar security forces.
"Access to the affected areas is completely blocked. This resembles Gaza as victims are squeezed between military attacks and closure of the border to a neighboring country," Zainol told Malaysia's Star Online.
"We also want to bring a message of peace with the flotilla. It is not only a religious issue but a humanitarian one."
On Friday, the deputy president of MAPIM told Anadolu Agency that the decision to send the flotilla had been made after the Myanmar government agreed in principle at a recent ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) foreign ministers meeting to open borders to such convoys.
"That is the reason behind the flotilla launch. The flotilla will be launched next month and will return after two weeks. No definite date has been determined yet as the NGO is trying to gather as much resources as it can," Zulkifly Ibrahim underlined by phone.
He said that 200 people are expected to take the journey from Malaysia, comprising medical officers, religious leaders, politicians and media, but the mission still faces "unforeseen challenges".
When asked how the flotilla would react to physical confrontation, Ibrahim said a decision was yet to be made.
"Many things can change between now and the launch date," he added.
The predominantly Rohingya area of Maungdaw has been under strict military control since Oct. 9 when a gang killed nine border police officials in an area close to Myanmar's western border with Bangladesh.
In the ensuing military clampdown, aid agencies and independent journalists were denied access and at least 93 people -- 17 police and soldiers and 76 alleged "attackers" (including six who reportedly died during interrogation) -- were killed and some 600 suspects detained for alleged involvement in the Oct. 9 attacks.
State media have reported that another three Muslim men have been killed on suspicion of collaborating with authorities.
Rohingya advocacy groups, however, claim around 400 Rohingya -- described by the United Nations as among the most persecuted groups worldwide -- were killed in the military operations, women were raped and Rohingya villages torched.
Malaysia has heavily criticized Myanmar’s government and military over the violence, with Prime Minister Najib Razak and his cabinet referring to it as "genocide” or “ethnic cleansing".
Fellow Muslim neighbor and ASEAN member Indonesia, however, has pledged to help Myanmar resolve all conflicts between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in impoverished Rakhine, which it sees as the root of the problem.
On Thursday, the Irrawaddy quoted Zaw Htay as telling the MAPIM that if they want to support Muslim communities in the area, they should follow Indonesia's lead.
He underlined that Jakarta is in cooperation with the Myanmar government to deliver rice to both Buddhist and Muslim communities in Maungdaw and that the government is also collaborating with UN agencies, international NGOs, and international and regional governments for humanitarian outreach in the area.
The flotilla is presently expected to leave Port Klang in Malaysia Jan. 10 and to return after dropping off aid around two weeks later.
Zaw Htay underlined Thursday that if the journey goes ahead in its present form, the ships would be told to return to Malaysia once entering Myanmar waters, or they would be turned back by force.
Rakhine has been torn by religious and ethnic division since mid-2012, after communal violence broke out between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya.
The violence left more than 100 people dead, over 100,000 (primarily Rohingya) displaced in camps and more than 2,500 houses razed -- most of which belonged to Rohingya.
Members of the minority were also not allowed to stand or vote in Myanmar's 2015 elections, which Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's party won in a landslide, as Myanmar does not see them as nationals.
Despite being accused of indifference to the Rohingya and their suffering, Suu Kyi has long said that the situation in Rakhine is economic, not political, as she strives to balance calls for intervention from the international community with anti-Muslim cries from nationalists -- many of whom voted for her party -- back home.
MAPIM describes itself on its Facebook page as a medium to coordinate, consult and facilitate efforts to improve the effectiveness of Islamic organizations and activists "in the efforts to build Islamic society that is 'Khairo Ummah' [for the good of the Muslim community] as a whole".