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Shots fired at leading Myanmar lawmakers in KL

Displaced Rakhine sheltering at Sittwe monastery, June 2102 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)
Displaced Rakhine sheltering at Sittwe monastery, June 2012 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

By SIMON ROUGHNEEN / Yangon and TERRY FRIEL / Kuala Lumpur

They were travelling back to their luxury hotel through the crowded streets of Kuala Lumpur on a humid night during the fireworks-fuelled two weeks of Chinese New Year celebrations.

The sound of small explosions was everywhere.

It was raining. Two men on a motorbike pulled up alongside them.

One pulled out a gun and fired several shots into the unmarked vehicle carrying prominent Myanmar Rakhine lawmakers Aye Maung and Aye Thar Aung.

“Our security in the back seat saw two people approach, and one picked up a gun,” recounted Aye Maung, speaking to The Edge Review after returning to Myanmar.

“We told the the driver to speed up, but heard one of the men outside shout ’shoot ,shoot!,’ in [the] Burmese language. The second bullet hit the car mirror about five inches above my head,” Aye Maung said.

A Malaysian police spokesman told The Edge Review it was not clear if the attack was politically motivated or a random act, in what is a city racked by street violence.

“We’re looking at it,” he said. “But it’s too early (for us to) know. We are taking this seriously.”

The Myanmar embassy in the Malaysian capital did not return phone calls requesting comment.

The two men were in Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, to meet Myanmar refugees and migrant workers.

Unofficial figures put the number of Burmese – legal and illegal – in Malaysia at well over one million.

“This is an ugly sign,” a Western diplomat based in Bangkok told The Edge Review.

Rakhine State, or Arakan, in Myanmar has been a flashpoint of communal violence between Muslims and Buddhists for decades.

Almost 200,000 people have been made homeless since 2012 in religious violence.

Aye Maung would not discuss the possible identity or motive for the shooting in Malaysia’s capital, but Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) party colleague Khin Maung Latt told Myanmar-based news magazine The Irrawaddy last week that “I think Rohingya in Malaysia tried to kill him.”

Arakan has been the main flashpoint of sectarian violence between Myanmar’s Muslims and Buddhists.

The United Nations had cited credible evidence that separate killings of Rohingya took place either side of the alleged murder of a policeman – said to be by vengeful Rohingya – on January 13. Rakhine Buddhists say that the Rohingya, who are usually called “Bengalis” by Burmese politicians to underscore the view that they are not one of Myanmar’s 135 recognised ethnic groups and are denied citizenship rights, are “invading” Rakhine.

Human rights groups say Rohingya are denied basic rights and forced to live in squalid apartheid-like villages, or, in the case of those affected by the post-2012 violence, stuck in ghetto-like refugee camps.

Chris Lewa, Director of The Arakan Project, a Thailand-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has long maintained a network of clandestine contacts among the Rohingya in Rakhine State, and which was the source for the initial claims of a massacre of Rohingya in January, said that verifying what happened is nigh impossible, due to security restrictions and, it is alleged, subsequent attempts at a cover-up.

“Through our sources we could identify from eyewitnesses nine dead bodies. But the figure is surely higher. For example, a woman told us that she had to leave behind her disabled son and later she looked everywhere for him and could not find him. A few days later, a Rohingya village leader mentioned that 280 are still missing. Many people are scattered and some fled to Bangladesh – so we cannot assume that this number was killed,” she said.

The Myanmar government dismissed the claims the massacre occurred and criticised some foreign and local press for reporting about the matter, as well as warning foreign embassies based in Yangon against overstepping the diplomatic mark in discussing the matter.

The alleged killings took place the same week as Myanmar hosted a meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), prompting government spokesman Ye Htut to suggest that it was either an attempt to tarnish the country during an important meeting or a stab at deflecting attention from the missing policeman.

The Myanmar government says it will not allow any discussion of the country’s domestic politics during its 2014 tenure as chair of Asean.

In January, Indonesia Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said at the Asean foreign ministers meeting that while Myanmar’s neighbours agree with Naypyidaw’s view that sectarian violence in Myanmar is an internal matter, it nonetheless has wider implications, citing developments in his own country.

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