The Myanmar Ministry of Immigration announced that permits would no longer be issued to its citizens seeking employment in Malaysia.  Myanmar’s move to impose a prohibition on its new workers and possible recall of existing workers from Malaysia is disruptive and unfair to Malaysia’s manufacturers.

The diplomatic ties between both states have been strained over the past few weeks when Malaysian government leaders openly criticised the treatment of the ethnic Rohingyas in Myanmar. Buddhist-majority Myanmar has long discriminated against the stateless Rohingya and the recent crisis has galvanized protests in Muslim countries around the region, including Malaysia.

The motion came after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak lashed out at Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for allowing “genocide”, during a rally in Kuala Lumpur that drew thousands of people.  The crowds were protesting against a military crackdown in Myanmar’s western state of Rakhine that has forced more than 20,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh.

There are 147,000 legal Myanmar workers in the state and about 72% are in the manufacturing sector, 13% in construction, 11% in services, and four percent in the plantation and agriculture sector.  According to Malaysia, some 56,000 Rohingya has arrived on its shores in late years, many taking perilous boat journeys to flee poverty and discrimination in Rakhine State.

Much of Myanmar views the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though most of them have been there for generations.  Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi made a commission tasked with trying to solve the Rakhine crisis, headed by Kofi Annan. But, her hands are somewhat tied by Myanmar’s notoriously abusive military. Under the country’s military government-era establishment, the army still controls key ministries and has a parliamentary veto.

Muslim-majority Malaysia has recently upped its criticism of Myanmar for its manipulation of the crisis. A senior minister has called on ASEAN, the ten-country Southeast Asia bloc, to review Myanmar’s membership, while a strongly worded statement from the foreign ministry accused Myanmar of engaging in “cultural cleansing”. But analysts said the issue is a convenient smokescreen for Najib, who is fighting allegations he took office in the looting of billions of dollars of public cash through state fund. Both he and the fund deny any misconduct.

The tension in the region is driving poor workers towards unemployment, poverty and more hardships.

Abhishek Nisal, Correspondent (Asia: Far East)

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