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Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Friday sent off a ship carrying tonnes of food and emergency supplies to Burma’s Rohingya Muslims, saying their suffering would not be ignored.
Najib has been an outspoken critic of the treatment of predominantly Buddhist Burma’s Muslim Rohingya minority, calling on the government to stop attacks.
The Burmese government, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has denied the accusations, saying many reports of violence against Rohingya are fabricated. It insists strife in Arakan State, officially known as Rakhine, where many Rohingya live, is an internal matter.
“This is a historic moment … a noble effort that shows that all the pain and suffering of Rohingya in Myanmar [Burma] will not go ignored,” Najib said in a speech at a port near the capital of mostly Muslim Malaysia.
“We hear their pain, those who have been raped, murdered and burned alive.”
Burmese security forces launched a crackdown in the north of Arakan State, on the border with Bangladesh, in October after nine policemen were killed in attacks on border posts the government blamed on Rohingya supported by foreign militants.
At least 86 people have been killed and about 66,000 have fled into Bangladesh since then to escape what refugees, residents and human rights groups say have been abuses by Burmese armed forces including summary executions and rape.
The aid shipment, bound for Burma’s biggest city and port of Rangoon, has been organised by Malaysian Muslim groups, as well as domestic and foreign aid groups.
The ship is expected to arrive in Rangoon on 9 February where it will unload 500 tonnes of supplies, organisers said.
It will then embark on a three-day journey to Teknaf port in Bangladesh.
Burma has not allowed the ship to sail to Sittwe, the capital of Arakan, as organisers had hoped.
Burma has also insisted that the aid to be distributed equally to both Buddhist and Muslim communities.
“We are still hoping with all our hearts that they will eventually allow us to visit Sittwe and distribute the aid ourselves,” said the mission chief, Abdul Azeez Abdul.
Malaysia has urged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to coordinate aid and investigate alleged atrocities committed against the Rohingya, breaking the 10-nation group’s long-standing tradition of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
Burma, in turn, has accused Malaysia of exploiting the crisis “to promote a certain political agenda”.
Najib hosted a meeting of representatives from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to discuss the treatment of Rohingya in January and urged Islamic countries to act to end the “humanitarian tragedy”.
Malaysia’s top counter-terrorism official has said Burma faces a growing danger of attacks by foreign militants in support of Rohingya.
Rohingya have faced discrimination in Burma for generations. They are not classified as a distinct group under citizenship laws and are regarded instead as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, entitled only to limited rights.
The recent violence in the north of Arakan is the most serious since communal clashes in 2012 in which hundreds of people were reportedly killed.