KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak led a protest rally Sunday against what he called a "genocide" of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority, as he urged Asian neighbors and the world to step up the pressure to stop the violence.
Najib said the rally at a stadium in suburban Kuala Lumpur will send a strong message to Aung San Suu Kyi's government that "enough is enough."
"U.N. please do something. The world cannot sit by and watch genocide taking place," Najib said to loud cheers from thousands of Muslims, including Rohingya refugees. "The world cannot say it is not our problem. It is our problem," he said.
The plight of Rohingya in predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar has galvanized Muslims in Southeast Asia and beyond. Denied citizenship although they have lived in Myanmar for generations, Rohingya have faced persecution that exploded in intercommunal violence in Rakhine state in 2012 that left hundreds dead and forced more than 100,000 into squalid camps.
The violence has again flared up as Myanmar's military launched attacks on Rohingya villages following deadly strikes by unknown assailants on police posts along the border with Bangladesh in October.
The top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Daniel Russel, said that the escalation of violence risks inciting jihadi extremism in Myanmar and Bangladesh and called on neighboring countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia, to resist the urge to stage protests that could further stir religious passions.
Najib said the persecution of the Rohingya is an insult on Islam. He said he had asked Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to stage a similar rally in Jakarta to put the pressure on Myanmar, because he said the charter of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to which all three countries belong, ensures the protection of human rights.
The Malaysian government-led protest marks a departure from the long-standing policy of non-interference by ASEAN members in each other's affairs.
"I will not close my eyes and shut my mouth. We must defend them (Rohingya) not just because they are of the same faith but they are humans, their lives have values," Najib said.
Some critics accuse Najib, who is grappling with a financial scandal, of using the rally to win the support of his country's Muslim Malays ahead of general elections due in 2018, which may be called earlier.
In a strongly worded statement Saturday, Malaysia's Foreign Ministry said there were some 56,000 Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. It said it has an obligation to halt the "ethnic cleansing" of the Rohingya and ensure security and stability in the region.
Malaysia has also summoned the Myanmar ambassador over the issue, and withdrew from two scheduled friendly football matches against Myanmar this month. Hundreds also protested outside the Myanmar Embassy last week.