Malaysia killings put Myanmar Buddhists on edge

This picture taken on February 27, 2014 shows Myanmar activist Myat Ko Ko looking at a portrait of late Myanmar pro-democracy activist, Aung Gyi in Balakong, outside Kuala Lumpur.

KUALA LUMPUR - San Win came to Malaysia seeking political refuge, but now lives in fear of what he and fellow Myanmar Buddhist exiles believe is a pattern of killings targeting them.

Exiled Myanmar pro-democracy activist Aung Gyi's body was found in a car boot on February 4, the victim of a stabbing, police and activists have said.

San Win and other Buddhists said the killing was one of many and indicates a spillover of deadly Myanmar communal violence into Malaysia, which has a large community of Myanmar migrants and refugees.

"We are very scared. It's not safe here for us," said San Win, head of a group that provides free funerals to needy Myanmar nationals.

Decades of animosity between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar's western Rakhine state exploded in bloodshed starting in 2012. Scores were killed and 140,000 displaced, mostly from the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority and the situation remains tense.

Fears of a spillover into Muslim-majority Malaysia emerged in the middle of 2013 when at least four Myanmar Buddhist migrant workers were killed in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur in suspected revenge attacks by Muslims.

Myanmar Buddhists allege at least one killing has occurred per month since then, typically stabbings, and complain Malaysia's Muslim-dominated police force has solved none of them.

Police have announced no arrests in Aung Gyi's killing.

'Who will be next?'

A day after Aung Gyi was found, two visiting Myanmar Buddhist politicians were targeted in an assassination attempt on a busy shopping street in Kuala Lumpur, police have said. Aung Gyi had earlier met the politicians.

Malaysia's police force, which is routinely accused by critics of incompetence and pro-Muslim bias, say it is investigating.

Khairi Ahrasa, a police official probing the shooting, said it was believed to be linked to Aung Gyi's killing but declined further comment.

Although they have no evidence, Buddhist community leaders suspect vengeful Rohingya.

"It can happen anywhere, anytime. Who will be next?" said Myat Ko Ko, another pro-democracy activist who fled to Malaysia in 2011.

"Previously, Rohingyas and Buddhists didn't quarrel with each other here."

San Win said many Buddhists believed the failure by Malaysian authorities to solve any killings suggests at least tacit official support for the violence.

He doesn't go out at night and rarely goes out alone.

"They can't protect us. They never protect us. There are so many cases, so many deaths that are never resolved," he said.

Rohingya 'scapegoats'

Police have not confirmed the Buddhist claim of regular attacks. They insist all crimes are thoroughly investigated.

Aung Gyi's death was a "very isolated, normal murder case. There is no reason to be afraid", police official Khairuldin Saad said. But he added that police had few leads.

Rohingya leaders reject suggestions their community was involved.

Rohingya were "scapegoats" for the violence in Malaysia, said Abdul Hamid Musa Ali, president of the Rohingya Society in Malaysia.

"For me it's another kind of plot (by Rakhine Buddhists) to justify another round of killing in Arakan," he said, using another term for Rakhine.

Hundreds of thousands of Myanmar migrants are estimated to be working in Malaysia, many illegally, drawn by its relatively developed economy and menial jobs shunned by more affluent Malaysians.

There are also 132,000 Myanmar asylum-seekers and refugees, the UN refugee agency says. More than 34,000 are Rohingya.

Many Buddhist political exiles, like Aung Gyi, came during the harsh rule of the military junta that governed Myanmar, formerly Burma, for decades but in 2010 embarked on democratic reforms.

The Buddhist-dominated government views its roughly 800,000 Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, denying them citizenship.

The UN calls the Rohingya one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

Spillover effect

Rohingya have trickled into Malaysia and Bangladesh for decades but refugee activists say the Rakhine upheaval has quickened the flow.

Abdul Hamid said an estimated 30,000 Rohingya arrived in Malaysia last year.

The troubles have touched Indonesia too.

Eight Myanmar Buddhists were killed in a detention centre in Muslim-majority Indonesia by Rohingya in April 2013.

In January, an Indonesian court jailed a suspected Islamic extremist over a plot to attack the Myanmar embassy to avenge killings of Rohingya in Rakhine.

Surin Pitsuwan, former head of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), warned in 2012 Rohingya could become "radicalised," destabilising the region.

Malaysian federal police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said recently authorities were "closely monitoring" the situation.

"We do not want any issues there (Myanmar) to escalate here," Malaysian media quoted him saying.

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