COVID-19 Op-ed

Explaining the rise of hate speech aimed at Rohingya Refugees in Malaysia

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Department of Administrative Studies &
Faculty of Economics and

Rohingya refugees have been at the receiving end of hate
speech during the COVID-19 pandemic in Malaysia by almost all segments of the
society, most especially those from middle and upper classes in the country.
A posting that was falsely attributed to head of The Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya
Human Rights Organization Malaysia (Mehrom), Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani,
triggered death threats and hate speech against the Rohingya community (FMT
Reporters, 2020). The Malaysian ambassador for the European Rohingya Council,
Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi, reported receiving threats and her personal
information, including car plate and identification number were widely
disseminated through various online platforms (Martin, 2020). The culmination
of these hate speech phenomena was further exacerbated when the Malaysian
Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) instructed a boat carrying approximately 200
Rohingya refugees back into deep waters out of fears that the Rohingyas might
be bringing more infections of the COVID-19 into the country (Malaymail,
2020). It was no surprise that certain quarters were apprehensive with
receiving the Rohingya refugees, what was of concern was that many of the
middle class Malaysians too joined in the bandwagon of hate towards the
Rohingyas. There are several regional and domesticated structural factors
that may have contributed to this negative perception.Concerns over imported
cases – Regional Factors
During the Enhanced
Movement Control Order (EMCO), Najib Tun Razak took a one hundred eighty and
went against his earlier policy of being in solidarity with the
Ummah (Islamic community) by being receptive of Rohingya
refugees during his administration, when he was quoted saying, ‘Sudah
diberikan betis, nak peha pulak,’ (Give them an inch and they’ll take a
mile’). This perception was shared by administrators of the Perikatan
Nasional. It is important to highlight that out of the 178,000 refugees in
Malaysia, 153000 are from Myanmar and 101,000 are Rohingya refugees. It was
reported that the Southwest China’s Yunan Province 1,941 kilometer borderline
shared with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam had been on high alarm with regards to
border control with strict administration measures being imposed by the
Chinese and Myanmarese governments (Shan, 2020). During the November 2016
civic outbreak in northern Myanmar, many Burmese fled the country to seek
refuge in the temporary shelter in Wading, Yunan, China. People from the two
states do not only share a common border, but many have relatives living on
both sides of the fence. Before the outbreak, Myanmar, had direct flights
each week from Wuhan and more than 300,000 Chinese tourists visited Myanmar
in 2019 (Nachemson, 2020). This excludes the 10,000 Myanmar workers that
crossed the Chinese border for work daily. Concerns that infections maybe
rampant and undetected could have influenced the perception of regular
Malaysians, notwithstanding the middle and upper classes in the
‘Othering’ of Rohingyas – Domestic Issues
poverty and lack of opportunity leads communities with no access to proper
education, hospitalization and jobs have led them to be the most vulnerable
to the COVID-19 decease. That has led them to rely on daily waged odd jobs.
Understandably, the pandemic took a toll on their income during the MCO
(Movement Control Order). Secondly, the housing facilities are typically
cramped and unhygienic (Sandanasamy, Paavilainen & Baruah, 2020).
When it was reported that 78 percent of the COVID-19 as of late May were
mainly migrant and foreign workers, this further exacerbated the perception
that these groups were a threat to the general wellbeing of regular
Malaysians (Loheswar, 2020). Misinformation and hate speech over social media
further fueled hatred by regular Malaysians toward the Rohingya community
particularly (Ding, 2020). When Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Minister of Defense,
said he was going to detain and isolate undocumented migrant and foreign
workers, Malaysians were rather supportive of this move (CodeBlue, 2020). It
was implored that the government will take those dirty, dangerous and
difficult jobs foreign and migrant workers typically due, and offer it up to
those Malaysians that have lost their jobs (Nadirah, 2020). Local business
people still have problems getting Malaysians to do those jobs, and the
reliance on these groups will continue.Extreme poverty and lack of
opportunities have also made the Rohingyas vulnerable to illicit activity and
extremism. There have reports of Rohingyas being used as drug mules from the
Shan State into Bangladesh (Ginkel, 2020). The Arakan Army help smuggle Ya ba
(mixture of methamphetamine and caffeine) from Shane State into Rakhine and
later use the Rohingyas as drug mules to be smuggled into Cox Bazaar,
Bangladesh. While there are no concrete evidences that the Rohingyas are
further being exploited into bringing Ya Ba into Thailand, Malaysia and other
neighboring countries, discounting these possibilities would be erroneous.
Extreme poverty in exchange for a promise to be smuggled to these countries
can be a driving force.Locally, the Rohingyas have been recruited as drug
pushers and turf war has led to shootings at a wholesale market here in Kuala
Lumpur. Local smugglers have found the Rohingyas to be readily expendable in
comparison to the local recruits. Five were caught four years ago on drug
smuggling charges. They also have showed signs of being vulnerable to being
recruited by terrorist groups like ISIS (Fernandez & Greg, 2020).
These isolated incidences in comparison to the large number of Rohingya
refugees in Malaysia, does play a role in influencing negative perceptions
toward the community.References:CodeBlue.
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