President Barack Obama will use an Asian tour beginning next week to bolster US alliances in the region at a time of increased geopolitical tension.
Malaysia clashes stoke fear of Myanmar spillover
Secretarian bloodshed between majority Buddhists and minority Muslims erupted in Myanmar a year ago, leaving about 200 people dead, up to 140,000 homeless, and raising fears of wider instability in the region as refugees flee the country.
Recent incidents in nearby Malaysia and Indonesia are feeding those concerns.
At least four Myanmar Buddhists were killed in Malaysia in suspected revenge killings by Muslims that began on May 30 in an area on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur where many Myanmar migrants have settled.
In one attack, Yaza Min, a Buddhist, was hit with a steel pipe when he and several fellow workers at a vast vegetable market were targeted in a sudden assault by eight men also armed with machetes.
"I will go back (to Myanmar). I'm very afraid," he said, cowering in a Buddhist temple where he and dozens of others have sought refuge.
In April, eight Buddhist fishermen from Myanmar were beaten to death in an Indonesian detention centre by Rohingyas -- a Muslim group that claims heavy persecution in Myanmar -- over two alleged rapes blamed on Buddhists.
The violence back in Myanmar has sent fresh waves of Rohingyas fleeing on rickety boats in a perilous journey to neighbouring countries like Muslim-majority Malaysia.
Many fear staying in Myanmar due to a strident anti-Muslim movement that has included a campaign headed by Buddhist monks to shun shops owned by Muslims.
In October, Surin Pitsuwan, then secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), warned the situation could, in turn, radicalise Rohingyas -- who the United Nations calls one of the world's most persecuted minorities, and "destabilise" the region.
Following the Malaysia violence, Asian Buddhist and Muslim leaders met in Thailand in mid-June to address the "potential spread of hatred across the region".
"Once things like this (clashes) begin to happen (outside of Myanmar), you have to be very careful. It could spill over. This is the danger," said Chandra Muzaffar, president of International Movement for a Just World which helped organise the Thai meeting.
With its relatively developed economy, Malaysia has for years been a magnet for Myanmar migrant workers -- many of them illegal -- who now number about 260,000, according to government statistics.
There are also another 95,000 Myanmar refugees and asylum-seekers in the country, the UN refugee agency says.
Myanmar and Malaysia -- which welcomes the low-wage labour -- generally look the other way on the issue, but the disturbing recent events have forced them to act.
Myanmar's deputy foreign minister visited Malaysia in June to look into the recent clashes and offer to aid victims, facilitating the return of many although exact numbers are not available.
Malaysia responded to the violence outside Kuala Lumpur by rounding up more than 900 Myanmar nationals. Most were released, but about 200 reportedly face charges for entering the country illegally.
Both countries also have pledged to work on repatriating thousands of Myanmar migrants caught in previous raids and held in overcrowded Malaysian detention centres.
Workers at the sprawling Selayang market north of Kuala Lumpur, where the recent violence has been centred, say the attacks were perpetrated by Muslims angry over what they see as the targeting of fellow Muslims in the strife back home.
"Some have lost everything. Imagine your father and mother have been killed, and your mosque and school burned," said Rafiq Rashid, a 21-year-old Muslim vegetable seller and refugee from Myanmar.
He said Myanmar Buddhists also were inciting hatred in Malaysia, encouraging their fellow countrymen to attack Muslims.
Security at the market has been tightened and once again bustles with commercial activity, but fears linger.
"I believe it will happen again," said a Malaysian shop owner, who declined to give his name.
The Buddhists hiding in the monastery are taking no chances -- they plan to return to Myanmar.
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