Photo Credit: SUZAUDDIN RUBEL/AFP via Getty Images
Photo Credit: SUZAUDDIN RUBEL/AFP via Getty Images

Joint Letter on ending violent threats and hate speech against the Rohingya community in Malaysia

11 May 2020

Your Excellency Tan Sri Dato’ Haji Muhyiddin bin Haji Mohd. Yassin, Prime Minister of Malaysia,

We, the undersigned 84 organizations, write concerning the response of the Government of Malaysia to threats of violence and ‘hate speech’ directed at ethnic Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.

Starting in the third week of April 2020, hateful messages targeting the Rohingya community in Malaysia have proliferated on social media platforms. Many posts included discriminatory and dehumanizing language and images as well as calls for Rohingya in Malaysia to be forcibly returned to Myanmar. Numerous online petitions calling for the expulsion of Rohingya were launched on and other platforms. Some petitions garnered thousands of signatures. Online users threatened prominent Rohingya activists, as well as their supporters, with physical attacks, murder and sexual violence.

We recognize the important role that Malaysia has played in hosting refugees, including Rohingya refugees arriving from Myanmar and Bangladesh. However, we are concerned that your government has to date failed to adequately respond to the recent surge in ‘hate speech’ and violent threats being directed at the Rohingya population. Moreover, statements by Malaysian officials, including the Minister of Home Affairs, could heighten tensions and incite violence and discrimination against the Rohingya.

We urge you to act immediately to address the recent proliferation of ‘hate speech’ and violent threats against the Rohingya community and to ensure that incendiary rhetoric does not trigger discriminatory acts or physical attacks.

Drawing on international human rights standards, this letter lays out steps that your government should take to effectively address ‘hate speech’, threats and incitement. Specifically, government officials should consistently, unequivocally and publicly condemn all forms of hate directed at the Rohingya. Authorities should investigate and prosecute threats of violence and expression that constitutes incitement to violence or discrimination in a manner that is consistent with the standards set out in the Rabat Plan of Action. Your government should also step up efforts to implement positive policy measures to counter ‘hate speech’ and intolerance in line with Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action. Both documents are attached to this letter.


The recent wave of ‘hate speech’ and violent threats against the Rohingya appears to be driven by a perception among some members of the Malaysian public and politicians that the Rohingya community is demanding citizenship or other legal rights in Malaysia. Many Malaysian social media users have expressed outrage at a Facebook post falsely claiming that the founder of a Rohingya organization demanded that Malaysia grant the Rohingya citizenship. The Rohingya activist in question has unequivocally denied making the statement and on April 23 filed a police report stating the social media posts are false and defamatory.

‘Hate speech’ and threats of violence against Rohingya have appeared on many social media platforms, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Many comments draw on negative stereotypes and utilize derogatory or dehumanizing language, including comparisons to animals. Malaysians have launched petitions on and Avaaz demanding that the Malaysia government forcibly return Rohingya refugees to Myanmar.

Rohingya leaders and activists reported receiving death threats and harassment in recent weeks after it was falsely claimed they were demanding Malaysian citizenship for the Rohingya. Additionally, those supporting the Rohingya community in Malaysia have also been targeted. Malaysian human rights defender Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi, the European Rohingya Council’s representative to Malaysia, was the target of vicious gender-based attacks after publishing a letter objecting to Malaysia’s pushback of boats containing Rohingya asylum seekers.

Human rights organizations have worked diligently to alert social media companies to the use of their platforms to foment hate against the Rohingya. Facebook, Twitter, and Avaaz removed content that violated their community standards and terms of service. However, new posts and petitions containing hateful and discriminatory content continue to appear.

Official response

The rapid proliferation of threats of violence and ‘hate speech’ against the Rohingya community immediately followed the government’s decision in April to repel boats containing Rohingya refugees attempting to land in Malaysia. This action by the Malaysia government violated the principle of non-refoulement under international human rights law and threatened the lives of hundreds of Rohingya. Malaysia also has an obligation under international law to respond to boats in distress and enact and coordinate rescue operations.

To date, the Malaysia government has sent mixed messages concerning the discriminatory and threatening speech directed at the Rohingya. On 27 April, Senior Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob expressed sympathy for the Rohingya and called for Malaysians to be ‘peaceful’ and ‘considerate’ while avoiding allegations that can foment anger. However, on 30 April, this message of tolerance was undermined by an official statement by the Minister of Home Affairs that emphasized Rohingya’s lack of legal status or rights in Malaysia and justified measures ‘to stop the intrusion of illegal immigrants’.

Malaysian authorities have also sought to cast blame on the Rohingya community for the recent spread of ‘hate speech’ and discriminatory rhetoric. Police officials have opened investigations against Rohingya social media users who have posted videos containing derogatory language about Malaysians. The statement by the Minister of Home Affairs references criminal complaints against Rohingya refugees and the opening of investigations against ‘UNHCR card holders’, but does not specify what actions, if any, are being taken to investigate those threatening violence against the Rohingya or human rights defenders who have raised their voices to support the Rohingya.

Obligation to address ‘hate speech’ against Rohingya

The ‘hate speech’ directed at the Rohingya community raises serious concerns about the Malaysia government’s commitment to protect human rights, including the rights to equality, non-discrimination, life and security of person. These rights are protected by customary international law, which is binding on all states, and reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Moreover, although Malaysia has not ratified core human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the human rights guarantees in the Constitution of Malaysia allow wide scope for interpretation. Given the fundamental importance of human rights, and their recognition in the Malaysian Constitution, it is of the utmost importance that every effort be made to ensure that Malaysian laws are interpreted, to the extent possible, in a manner that respects human rights.

Human rights experts and international bodies have called on states to combat the proliferation of ‘hate speech’, xenophobia and intolerance in recent years. In the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, the UN General Assembly condemned ‘racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’, and committed to ‘take a range of steps to counter such attitudes and behavior, in particular with regard to hate crimes, hate speech and racial violence’.

Restrictions on the right to freedom of expression

International human rights law protects the right to freedom of expression, though the right is not absolute. Freedom of expression may be restricted in order to advance a legitimate state interest when restrictions are lawful, necessary and proportionate, as set out in Article 19(3) of the ICCPR. ‘Hate speech’ includes language that, while offensive, is protected by the right to freedom of expression. However, threats of violence against individuals—such as death threats and threats of sexual violence received by Rohingya activists and their supporters—may be restricted in line with the legitimate state interest in protecting the rights of others, including the rights to security of person, equality, non-discrimination and life.

Further, Article 20(2) of the ICCPR requires the prohibition of any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. The Rabat Plan of Action provides practical legal and policy guidance to states on implementing Article 20(2) of the ICCPR, which requires states parties ‘to prohibit advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’. These international standards provide the Malaysia government guidance on measures that states can take to combat ‘hate speech’, violent threats and incitement.

Malaysia’s Penal Code contains provisions aimed at protecting individuals from violence and threats of violence. These provisions may provide a legal basis for the investigation or prosecution of individuals who are inciting or threatening violence against the Rohingya. The application of civil or administrative law, or other policy measures, offer further avenues for addressing discrimination. It is imperative that these measures are implemented without discrimination or bias and consistent with international human rights standards relating to freedom of expression. In particular, restrictions on speech to protect the rights of the Rohingya must be lawful, necessary and proportionate to that aim.

Policy measures to address ‘hate speech’ and intolerance

Prohibitions of incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence are insufficient to combat intolerance and discrimination. Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 sets out an action plan for states to address intolerance, stigmatization, discrimination and incitement to violence. The Rabat Plan of Action also suggests actions that states may take to address intolerance beyond merely penalizing incitement. Policy measures suggested by these standard-setting documents include education and awareness-raising, protecting media freedom and diversity, passing equality legislation, promoting community engagement on the causes of discrimination, building networks and mechanisms to respond to tension between communities, and training government officials on effective strategies to promote tolerance.


Your leadership in addressing ‘hate speech’ and threats directed at the Rohingya is essential to prevent violence, discrimination and other human rights abuses. We urge you and your government to speak out in support of the rights of the Rohingya, emphasizing their status as refugees fleeing persecution and human rights violations and unequivocally condemning ‘hate speech’, intolerance and discrimination directed at the Rohingya community. We ask that you and your government challenge false or discriminatory narratives and highlight your government’s commitment to uphold the human rights of the Rohingya. As Prime Minister, we urge you to ensure all government officials and bodies do the same when addressing the situation of the Rohingya in Malaysia.

We further call on you to lead the Malaysia government’s efforts to prevent incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence against the Rohingya. Authorities must ensure threats and other human rights abuses against the Rohingya and their supporters are investigated, and perpetrators held accountable. Investigation and prosecutions should be conducted without discrimination or bias and in a manner that is consistent with international human rights standards.

Finally, we call on you to lead in the development and implementation of a holistic set of measures to address ‘hate speech’, intolerance and discrimination. In particular, the government of Malaysia should:

  • Create an enabling environment for the right to freedom of expression and equality in Malaysia, including by passing comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in line with international human rights standards.
  • Implement positive policy measures to promote equality, non-discrimination and inter-cultural understanding in line with Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 and the Rabat Plan of Action.
  • Ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

We stand ready to support you to implement the measures suggested in this letter. To request further information or to set up a meeting or call to discuss our recommendations please contact Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19 Head of Asia Programme, at or +66-617464208.


  1. Advocates for Non-Discrimination and Access to Knowledge (ANAK)
  2. Aliran Kesedaran Negara (ALIRAN)
  3. Agora Society
  4. ALTSEAN-Burma
  5. Amnesty International Malaysia
  6. Arakan Information Center
  7. ARTICLE 19
  8. Bangladesh Institute of Human Rights
  9. Beyond Borders Malaysia
  10. Boat People SOS
  11. Building and Wood Workers International, Asia-Pacific
  12. Buku Jalanan Shah Alam
  13. Burma Campaign UK
  14. Burmese Rohingya Association in Japan
  15. Burmese Rohingya Community in Denmark
  16. Canadian Burmese Rohingya Organization
  17. Canadian Rohingya Development Initiative
  18. Center for Orang Asli Concerns
  19. Centre for Independent Journalism
  20. Christian Solidarity Worldwide
  21. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
  22. COAST Trust
  23. Community Development Centre
  24. Coxsbazar CSO NGO Forum
  25. EMPOWER Malaysia
  26. European Rohingya Council
  27. FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights
  28. Foreign Spouses Support Group
  29. Fortify Rights
  31. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
  32. Human Rights Watch
  33. Imagined Malaysia
  34. Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention at Binghamton University
  35. Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion
  36. International Campaign for the Rohingya
  37. International Commission of Jurists
  38. International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School
  39. Islamic Rennaisance Front
  40. Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas (JERIT)
  41. Justice For Sisters
  42. Kuala Lumpur & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Youth Section
  43. KRYSS Network
  44. Malaysian Action for Justice and Unity Foundation (MAJU)
  45. Malaysia Muda
  46. NONGOR
  47. North South Initiative
  48. Our Journey
  49. Queer Lapis
  50. Pelangi Campaign
  51. People’s Empowerment Foundation
  52. People Like Us Support Ourselves (PLUsos)
  53. Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia (GERAK)
  54. Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor
  55. PHALS Coxsbazar
  56. Progressive Voice
  57. Projek Dialog
  58. Pusat KOMAS
  59. Refugees International
  60. Restless Beings
  61. Rights Realization Centre
  62. Rohingya Association of Canada
  63. Rohingya Students Network
  64. Rohingya Today
  65. Rohingya Youth for Legal Action
  66. Rohingya Women’s Education Initiative
  67. RW Welfare Society
  68. Salam for Democracy and Human Rights
  69. Sabah Human Rights Centre
  70. Save Rivers, Sarawak
  71. Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia
  72. Seksualiti Merdeka
  73. Sinar Project
  74. Sisters In Islam (SIS)
  75. Society for Threatened Peoples
  76. South Asian Network for Refugees, IDPs and Migrants (SANRIM)
  77. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
  78. Tenaganita
  79. Teoh Beng Hock Trust for Democracy
  80. University Malaya Association of New Youth
  81. Voice of the Children
  83. Women’s Aid Organisation
  84. Yayasan Chow Kit
Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and other NGOs


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