IT is a cruel irony that elites should have no empathy for their citizens. First, Yangon refused to recognise the Rohingya as an ethnic group, insisting that they are Bangladeshis despite their centuries-old presence in Myanmar. Without citizenship, hardship was their lot. Then, as a result of Malaysia’s firm stance against the cruelty perpetrated on the weak — tantamount to ethnic cleansing — the poor generally are being victimised and deprived of their right to seek employment here. Yangon is refusing to allow its people to work in Malaysia. But, of course, in a free world, who can protest against a self-inflicted injury? Is not euthanasia an accepted practice in some countries? Granted that Malaysia needs foreign labour to man its economy, but Myanmar is not the country’s only source. Furthermore, it is not as if workers from Myanmar have a comparative advantage over others.

Malaysia has a minimum wage policy that covers migrant labour. The law does not tolerate exploitation of labour, period. Granted that aberrations do occur, but when caught, the employers are punished. And, like all sanctions, this should work in Malaysia’s favour as employers explore other possible sources. On the whole, Malaysian employers are not overly perturbed by Yangon’s move in declaring that workers will be sourced elsewhere and lest Yangon forgets, unskilled labour is yet to become a scarce commodity. And, too, a shrinking labour market will encourage employers to mechanise wherever possible — long desired by policymakers — which is again advantageous to the economy. There are also the many violent episodes implicating and involving Myanmar workers here. In short, Yangon, while making meaningless threats, is actually depriving its treasury of repatriated income. After all, statistics for 2014 showed the number of migrant labour from Myanmar in the country to be fewer than 200,000 out of about three million, and they constitute only the fourth largest group out of several. For Malaysia, therefore, if these 200,000 workers from Myanmar are immediately repatriated, the impact would not be nearly as catastrophic as it would be for Yangon. How would they accommodate these numbers into their workforce without causing any disruption?

Yes, the regime in Yangon denies the charges of ethnic cleansing and genocide. But foreign journalists generally are barred from entering Rakhine state where the main atrocities are said to be happening. Yet, there have been satellite evidence of houses burning and eyewitness accounts from those fleeing the inhumanity. Why would tens of thousands risk life and limb running away from peace, if not prosperity? Would not economic refugees be advised to register with an employment agency like others already here? No, there is something terribly amiss in Myanmar. Even if those victimised are not Muslims — reports suggest that other minorities are also being brutalised — it remains a humanitarian obligation for Malaysia to act while encouraging others to do the same. Has not the United Nations declared the Rohingya to be the most persecuted people in the world? Pressure must be exerted on Yangon before the Rohingya are made extinct by the silence of a Nobel Peace laureate.

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