Clear divisions are emerging among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) over Myanmar’s military operations in Rakhine state, a diplomatic divide that threatens to split the regional grouping on religious lines.

Myanmar’s military-led “clearance operations” have led to civilian causalities, allegations of grotesque rights abuses and the displacement of over 500,000 ethnic Rohingya who have sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.

Malaysia took the rare step last week of disassociating itself from a joint statement issued by the Philippines, the grouping’s current chairman, because from Kuala Lumpur’s perspective it misrepresented the situation. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, in an unusually sharp rebuke, maintained that the chairman’s remarks failed to reflect Asean’s founding principle of consensus.

The Asean statement expressed support for Myanmar in efforts “to bring peace, stability, rule of law and to promote harmony and reconciliation between various communities,” and omitted the term “Rohingya” in referring to the persecuted Muslim minority group – in accordance with Naypyidaw’s opposition to its use as an official ethnic group classification.

Rohingya refugees stretch their hands as they reach for food near Balukhali in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 4, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
Rohingya refugees reach for food near Balukhali in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, September 4, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

Malaysia’s dissenting remarks followed on Prime Minister Najib Razak’s own activist stance on the issue, demonstrated by his championing of the Rohingya cause in the international arena and at political rallies at home where he has characterized Myanmar’s treatment of the minority community as an “insult to Islam.”

“What’s the use of Aung San Suu Kyi having a Nobel prize?” asked the premier referring to Myanmar’s de facto leader as he addressed a massive protest rally alongside the leader of the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) last December at a stadium in Kuala Lumpur. In the same address, he urged the United Nations to take action in support of the Rohingya.

Najib also expressed hope that the United States would play a positive role in diffusing the crisis during his recent meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House.

Malaysia has simultaneously called on China – which views the conflict as an “internal affair” and has welcomed Myanmar’s efforts to combat extremists – to help resolve the Rohingya refugee crisis. Najib has cultivated close economic and strategic ties with Beijing in recent years.

Muslim-majority Malaysia’s coast guard announced earlier this month that it would no longer turn away Rohingya fleeing Myanmar’s violence, promising to provide temporary shelter to refugees fleeing the Myanmar military’s scorched earth clearance operations.

Rohingyas living in Malaysia protest against the treatment of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslims near the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia September 8, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin
Rohingyas living in Malaysia protest against the treatment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims at the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur, September 8, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

That assault was triggered by surprise lethal attacks on police and military posts staged on August 25 by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), an emergent Rohingya militant group whose leadership has alleged ties to extremist elements in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Although it is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Malaysia hosts an estimated 59,000 Rohingya refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), although unofficial numbers are believed to be nearly double that number.

While Najib has provided generous amounts of humanitarian aid to refugees in Bangladesh and displayed broad solidarity with the Rohingya, asylum seekers in Malaysia are still considered illegal immigrants under local immigration laws, barring refugees from legal employment, access to state schools and leaving them subject to arrest, detention or deportation.

Critics of Malaysia’s premier, who has been embroiled in money laundering controversies related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, claim his proactive stance on the Rohingya issue falls short on solutions and appears motivated by political considerations to consolidate domestic Malay Muslim support ahead of general elections that must be held at the latest by August 2018.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar has accused Najib’s government of violating the Asean charter of non-interference and exploiting the crisis “to promote a certain political agenda.” Najib has also claimed that Myanmar’s de facto leader Suu Kyi has outright refused to meet Foreign Minister Anifah Aman to discuss the Rohingya issue.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) speaks to supporters during the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) 71st anniversary celebration in Bukit Jalil stadium on May 11, 2017. More than 85,000 people crammed into Malaysia's Bukit Jalil stadium on May 11 to hear the embattled prime minister vow another electoral victory ahead of a widely expected snap election this year. / AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) speaks to supporters during the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) 71st anniversary celebration in Bukit Jalil stadium on May 11, 2017. Photo: Mohd Rasfan

The snub was part of a wider diplomatic spat. Last year, Naypyidaw barred its citizens from working in Malaysia, a top regional destination for migrant labor due to relatively higher wages, and suspended its policy of visas-on-arrival for Malaysians in January, making it the only Asean country whose citizens need to acquire a visa before visiting Myanmar.

Despite diplomatic tensions, bilateral trade has grown, up from around US$900 million in 2015 to US$1.15 billion in 2016, according to statistics from the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (Martrade). Around 4.5% of Myanmar’s imports originate from Malaysia, while Myanmar was Malaysia’s sixth largest trading partner within Asean in 2015.

“Asean risks losing credibility and international confidence if the regional grouping continues to ignore the plight of the Rohingya,” wrote former Asean secretary general Surin Pitsuwan, a Thai Muslim, in a recent editorial. “The regional grouping needs to act urgently to prevent the Rakhine crisis from spiraling into regional tensions.”

The Rohingya issue’s emotional pull in Asean areas with significant Muslim populations has sparked concerns of communal strife with security implications that could escalate well beyond Myanmar’s borders. Asean’s inability to contain the Rakhine crisis opens prospects for deepening cultural and religious divisions in Southeast Asia, where rising identity politics present myriad potential dangers.

Muslim young boys pray during noon prayers for the Marawi siege and the plight of Rohingyas in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines September 29, 2017. REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao
Muslim youth pray for the Marawi siege and the plight of Rohingyas in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines September 29, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Dondi Tawatao

Diplomats and observers believe Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya could become a magnet for international extremists, while government-sanctioned rallies condemning Myanmar can potentially backfire on political leaders, worsen ties between nations and fuel radicalization that risks inciting communal violence and instability in Asean’s mix of Buddhist, Christian and Muslim communities.

That appears to be happening already in spots. Mohamad Fuzi Harun, Malaysia’s police chief, recently disclosed intelligence that confirmed Malaysian citizens were present in Rakhine engaged in armed struggle against the Myanmar government, and that other Malaysian militants are quietly preparing to join the fight.

Malaysia’s anti-terror chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay made similar comments to local media claiming that Islamic State (IS) was actively using the Rohingya issue as a platform to recruit new members locally to carry out attacks, though he did not say whether the suspected Malaysian militants were fighting alongside ARSA in Rakhine.

IS-inspired militants from Malaysia, Indonesia and several Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries unexpectedly laid siege in May to the Philippine city of Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao. Fighting has continued with a pocket of militants holding a last position in the ruined city.

Soldiers stand guard along the main street of Mapandi village as government troops continue their assault on insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over large parts of Marawi City, Philippines June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco - RTX38N4D
Filipino soldiers in Marawi City with Islamic State graffiti in the background, June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Security analysts believe IS fighters are in the process of shifting their militant activities from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, as counterterrorism efforts in Syria and Iraq roll back the terror organization’s territorial gains and influence.

“There is a danger that the situation in Rakhine will make the territory a hotbed of international terrorist activity, both for the IS and Al Qaeda,” said Jasminder Singh of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

He warned of the potential for attacks in Myanmar and against its interests in the region, seen in a recent petrol bomb attack on Naypyidaw’s embassy in Jakarta.

As the Rohingya issue becomes a regional lightning rod for communal divisions, inaction and the absence of a collective response may fuel further radicalization, raising the risk of terrorist militants opening a second Asean front in Myanmar’s now burning Rakhine state.