KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - Malaysia's government on Saturday defended plans for a protest rally to condemn what it called "ethnic cleansing" of Myanmar's Muslim Rohingya minority, saying it has an obligation to ensure that its neighbor takes steps to prevent the crisis from deteriorating.
Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to attend the rally at a Kuala Lumpur stadium on Sunday. Myanmar has warned Muslim-majority Malaysia not to interfere in its internal affairs.
In a strongly worded statement, Malaysia's Foreign Ministry said the high number of Rohingya refugees in the country and other neighboring nations has made the crisis "no longer an internal matter but an international matter."
"The fact that only one particular ethnicity is being driven out is by definition ethnic cleansing. This practice must stop, and must be stopped immediately in order to bring back security and stability to the Southeast Asian region," it said.
U Zaw Htay, the deputy director general of Myanmar president's office, was quoted by the Myanmar Times as saying that Malaysia should respect a non-interference policy observed by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He said the protest appeared to be a calculated political decision to win the support of Muslim Malays in Malaysia.
Malaysia's Foreign Ministry rebutted the claim, saying the crisis was not a religious issue but an immediate humanitarian concern. It said Malaysia has repeatedly offered its assistance to Myanmar to find a just and durable solution to the persecution of Rohingya.
Malaysia has 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 to denounce the Rakhine "genocide."
Myanmar's Rakhine state, home to Rohingya Muslims in the predominantly Buddhist nation, was the scene of intense ethnic violence in 2012 that left hundreds dead and drove 140,000 people into camps for the internally displaced, most of them Rohingya.
The latest outbreak was triggered by attacks on Myanmar border posts on Oct. 9 that killed nine police officers. The identity and motives of the attackers are unclear, but in response, the government began military sweeps, sparking a major confrontation in mid-November when villagers resisted troops.
The government has cut off access to the area to aid agencies, diplomats and journalists.
Many of the estimated 1 million Rohingya, who face widespread discrimination and are excluded from Myanmar citizenship, have lived in Rakhine for generations but are treated as illegal settlers from Bangladesh.