Tensions between Buddhist-dominated Burma and Muslim-dominated Malaysia are rising once again after five Burmese workers were hacked to death with swords by a Malaysian mob in an ongoing dispute over religion and illegal immigration between the two countries.
The government of Burma—properly named Myanmar—announced this week that it had sent out “safety instructions” to its nationals working in Malaysia after the sword attack—one of the latest in many such incidents in which hundreds have been killed.
The Burma government officially banned its nationals from seeking work in Malaysia a few weeks ago, precisely because of security fears following the ongoing clashes.
In the latest incident, four masked men wielding swords attacked Burmese workers after they had left a factory in the Serdang district on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Five were killed and two wounded.
Malaysian police said seven Burmese men had been detained shortly after the attack.
The origin of the violence is the current status of Burma’s Rohingya Muslims—a Muslim group some 1.5 million strong. The Rohingyas have been involved in separatist activities—often linked to Islamism—for decades, and violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims are common in that country.
Burma stopped its workers going to Malaysia in December, after Najib Razak, prime minister of the predominantly Muslim country, described Burma’s treatment of the Rohingyas as “genocide” and called for foreign intervention.
There are however, at least 147,000 Burmese workers in Malaysia.
A spokesman for Burma’s President’s Office, Zaw Htay, said safety instructions had been issued to Burmese workers in Malaysia and illegal Burmese workers there were urged to contact the embassy for help.
Burma was working with Malaysian authorities to investigate the attack, and the ban on workers going to Malaysia would remain in force, he said.
Nyunt Win, deputy director general at Burma’s Labour, Immigration, and Population Ministry, said security worries had been one reason for the ban on workers going to Malaysia.
“There are several reasons for the ban on Myanmar migrant workers going to Malaysia, including security concerns and the fact that they are trying to stir up political troubles against Myanmar,” Nyunt Win said.
Last week, Malaysia’s top counterterrorism official told Reuters in an interview that Myanmar faced a growing danger of attacks by foreign supporters of the Islamic State recruited from Southeast Asian networks in support of the Rohingyas.
Malaysian authorities detained a suspected IS follower planning to go to Myanmar to carry out attacks, the head of the Malaysian police counterterrorism division, Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, said, adding that Myanmar targets outside Myanmar were also at risk.
In November 2016, Police in Burma said they would be arming and training civilians as part of ongoing counterterrorism operations in the country’s conflict-torn western Arakan state, after an attack on border patrol officers in October which killed nine.
The government attributed the attacks to suspected militants belonging to the Rohingya community.