KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Nine Myanmar nationals have been charged with murder in Malaysia over the gruesome killings of six of their countrymen that are suspected to be revenge attacks related to ethnic strife back home, a media report said Thursday.
The men, ranging in age from 20 to 44, were charged in the northern state of Penang on Wednesday, but did not enter pleas, The Star reported. They face the death penalty if convicted.
Over the past year, around two dozen murder cases involving Myanmar nationals have been reported in Malaysia, mostly in Penang, where public anxiety has risen as severed body parts and decapitated corpses repeatedly turned up.
Investigators say several victims were killed in a single Penang house designated for the slaughter.
Police have said they believe the attacks are related to violent clashes in Myanmar between members of the Buddhist majority and its population of Rohingya, a Muslim minority.
But authorities in Muslim-majority Malaysia have not yet stated clearly whether the killers were Myanmar Muslims exacting vengeance on Buddhists, as is widely believed.
The violence erupted in 2012 in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, leaving about 200 people dead and up to 140,000, mostly Rohingya, displaced.
With its more developed economy, Malaysia is a sought-after destination for Myanmar refugees and illegal migrants – both Buddhists and Rohingya – many of whom bring along their sectarian grudges.
Police were earlier reported to have detained several more people in the killings, but their fates were not clear.
AFP was not immediately able to reach Penang police for comment. Police are also reportedly still looking for four more murder suspects. The United Nations has called the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.
For years, tens of thousands have fled discrimination and repression in Myanmar, where they are viewed as foreigners.
Most of Myanmar’s roughly 1.3 million Rohingya are denied citizenship and face curbs on their movement, economic opportunities, and other restrictions.
More than 40,000 Rohingya refugees, registered with the UN, are in Malaysia. Rohingya activists say there are roughly equal numbers of un-registered Rohingya.