DHAKA: Angry Muslim protesters took to the streets from Jakarta to Dhaka on Friday (Nov 25) to denounce Myanmar over allegations of indiscriminate killing and rape in a military crackdown on the country's Rohingya Muslim minority.
Around 5,000 Bangladeshi Muslims demonstrated in the capital Dhaka after Friday prayers, with hundreds more protesting in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Bangkok to accuse Myanmar of ethnic cleansing and genocide in its northern Rakhine state.
Malaysia's Cabinet also issued a statement condemning the violence, an unusually strong criticism against a fellow member of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
"Malaysia ... calls on the government of Myanmar to take all necessary actions to address the alleged ethnic cleansing," the statement said.
It said the Myanmar ambassador would be summoned over the crisis and that Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman would meet with de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other top Myanmar officials "at the earliest possible date."
Up to 30,000 Rohingya have abandoned their homes in Myanmar to escape the unfolding violence, the UN says, after troops poured into the narrow strip where they live earlier this month.
Rohingya are denied citizenship and subject to harsh restrictions in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where many view them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, though many have lived been in Myanmar for generations.
The Dhaka protesters gathered outside the Baitul Mokarram mosque, the country's largest, to demand an end to the violence, denounce Suu Kyi, and calling for Bangladesh to accept fleeing Rohingya.
Around 500 Malaysians and Rohingya marched through a heavy tropical downpour from a Kuala Lumpur mosque to Myanmar's embassy carrying banners denouncing the Rakhine "genocide."
Abu Tahir, a 60-year-old Rohingya man who demonstrated with a chain coiled around his body, said he had been cut off from his family in Rakhine since he fled two years ago. "The Rohingya are being treated like dogs, and are being killed," he said, tears rolling down his face.
Amir Hamzah, 60, who heads the Malaysian Muslims Coalition, an NGO, said "the people of Malaysia strongly condemn" Myanmar's actions. "We want an immediate stop to the violence. This is cruel," he said.
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysian NGOs joined hundreds of Rohingya Muslims in staging the protests against the violence in Rakhine.
Emotional plea from rohingya Muslim leader Rafi Ismail in Malaysia . He fears that his 17 family members have been massacred in Rakhine. pic.twitter.com/ht8nxbhQgU— Melissa Goh (@MelGohCNA) November 25, 2016
'IS IT BECAUSE THEY ARE MUSLIMS?'
In Jakarta, around 200 demonstrators from Indonesian Islamic organisations protested outside Myanmar's embassy.
Chanting "Allahu Akbar! (God is greater!)", they called for the government of Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim nation - to break off diplomatic ties with Myanmar and for Suu Kyi's 1991 Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked.
"This genocide is happening to women, children and the elderly," said Maya Hayati, a 34-year-old housewife. "If they (Myanmar) don't want them, then it's probably better to send them to another country. Don't torture them like that in their own country."
Two hours after the protest began, police helped to facilitate a meeting between demonstrators and members of the embassy. Three people representing the protesters spoke with embassy officials, and urged them to take action.
“We conveyed to them that what is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar is a serious crime against human rights," said Iskandarsyah Siregar, spokesperson of the Alliance for the Unity of Muslims who was one of the people that met with officials at the embassy.
"It is genocide, and what is clear is that we condemn it. We demanded that the government of Myanmar take clear action towards what their government there (in Myanmar) is doing."
Iskandarsyah said that the group had asked the embassy to provide a response to their assertions by Monday, threatening to protest again if they did not.
“We asked them, their stance towards the Rohingya, is it because they are Muslims? If so, that means that the government of Myanmar is clearly hostile to Muslims. And we in Indonesia, as the biggest Muslim population, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, of course it makes us one of their enemies,” he told Channel NewsAsia.
Indonesian authorities deployed around 400 police officers to secure the protest area. Thousands of other security personnel were on stand-by in the vicinity, ready for deployment if the situation escalated.
After meeting with embassy officials, protesters said that they would be approaching the United Nations to demand action.
Also among the protesters was Muslim community leader Rafi Ismail who voiced his fears to reporters that 17 of his family members were massacred in Rakhine.
Over in Bangkok, representatives of the protesters from over 20 Muslim groups handed a letter to a Myanmar embassy official, also calling for an end to the violence.
Protesters in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok. (Photo: Twitter / @PanuCNA)
'DISTORTED INFORMATION' AND 'DISAPPOINTING'
The director general of Myanmar's foreign ministry said on Friday that the protests in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia were based on "distorted information" and were "disappointing".
He told Channel NewsAsia that the protests did not "help" the situation, and that Myanmar would be watching the demonstrations closely. He added that Myanmar would respond to the protests only if it was necessary to do so.
The UN says the stateless Rohingya are among the world's most persecuted minorities.
The UN refugee agency says well over 120,000 have fled Rakhine since a previous bout of bloody unrest in 2012, many braving a perilous sea journey to Malaysia.
Last year, thousands were stranded at sea after a well-worn trafficking route through Thailand collapsed following a police crackdown sparked by the discovery of brutal human-trafficking camps along the Malaysia border.
The conflict has also sent hundreds of Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh and poses a serious challenge to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and the new Myanmar administration that swept to power last year on promises of national reconciliation.