Monthly Archives: November 2009

Malaysia: Reporter’s Log/ Refugees for Sale


Wednesday 18 November 2009

Aidan Hartley,


Aidan Hartley


In Malaysia we found ourselves filming in dark alleys, secret apartments, on the edge of rubbish dumps, in patches of jungle outside the city, and, once, in a slum constructed on stilts over the sea. Much of the documentary had to be shot under cover of darkness, even though we might be in the shadow of the twin Petronas Towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur. One midnight, when we had nowhere to film on the edge of a busy highway, a kind Sikh priest took pity on us and invited us into his empty temple to interview a group of men.

The reason for all this secrecy was that the stakes were so high for our subjects – Burmese refugees and immigrants who had entered Malaysia illegally. They feared that to be noticed talking to western journalists would expose them to the risk of arrest by the authorities, imprisonment and even a bloody flogging with the ‘rotan’ cane.

There are hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees in Malaysia, but Kuala Lumpur has not signed up to international treaties that recognise their right to asylum here.

We spoke to Burmese refugees who had even worse stories to tell. They told us that Malaysian immigration officials had sold them to gangsters on the Thailand border. Here they were ordered to pay ransoms to secure their freedom and a route back to Kuala Lumpur. Refugees who cannot pay are allegedly sold to fishing boats, brothels or factories – and we met survivors of these ordeals.

It was a testimony to their extreme bravery that most of the refugees wanted to show their faces on camera. Having fled the brutal military regime of Burma, they were outraged at what they had been forced to suffer in Malaysia. They wanted the world to know about it.

As the stories we heard from these refugees piled up, it took a toll on the crew. Our interpreter burst into tears as he translated the testimony of one woman, Rahima, who told how a gangster had suffocated her baby son because he would not stop crying.

It is very hard for me talking about this,’ said a young Burmese man while asking for a pause in filming. ‘I do not want to have to remember what happened to me.’ The man had been sold into slavery on a fishing trawler, where he said he saw the bodies of other trafficked slaves pulled up in the prawn nets.

After all that, it was very hard to return to our comfortable Kuala Lumpur hotel with its menu of tasty dishes – including prawns.

In another interview, a father and son showed us pictures of four family members who had disappeared in the hands of Thai traffickers. The man and boy were so scared of the same thing happening to them that they had given up the search for their loved ones and dared not venture out of the Burmese ghetto in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia is a modern democracy with an economy growing so fast that the Asian country is about to enter the G20 group of rich nations.  For me, this made the testimonies of the Burmese refugees we spoke to even more shocking.


NB: The Malaysian Immigration Department said it had not received any evidence of trafficking that has led to a prosecution.




Series 2009 Episode 19 Malaysia: Refugees for Sale (25 mins)

7.30PM Friday 20 Nov 2009 Channel 4

Unreported World reveals shocking evidence that Burmese refugees fleeing the country’s brutal military regime are being detained and then allegedly


Junta Confiscates Land in Arakan State

Nov 18, 2009, Irrawaddy news,

About 50 traditional hand-dug oil wells and 10 acres of land were confiscated on Nov. 14 by the Burmese authorities in Kyuakphyu Township in Arakan State in western Burma, according to local sources.

The sources told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday that the landowners are afraid they will not receive any compensation from the Burmese authorities. Police in Kyuakphyu Township told them that the order to confiscate property came from Naypyidaw.

Maung Phyu, one of the landowners, said: “They came with guns to confiscate our property. We couldn’t say anything to them. This property is our legacy. We rely on it. We’ve lost it now, and we have no jobs.”

Land confiscation by the government is a common practice in Arakan State, according to the Arakan Rivers Network (ARN) based in Thailand.

An ARN report, “Holding Our Land,” published in February, said that 53,000 acres of land in Arakan State have been confiscated. Most of the property involved oil wells.

One Korean and two Chinese oil companies operate in Arakan State: China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC), the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS).

Local sources said they believed the confiscated land will be given to CNOOC to explore for oil on the site.

The oil companies and local landowners are often in business conflicts because oil companies promise to pay compensation after they take over land, but they don’t pay fair prices, according to the Arakan Oil Watch (AOW)  based in Thailand.

Tun Thar Aung, a Burmese migrant in Mae Sot, told The Irrawaddy his land was confiscated by CNOOC. The company told him to sign a contract and it promised to pay compensation, he said, but no payment was ever made.

Land confiscation has increased in Arakan State since 2007 when authorities evicted many landowners in Kyuakphyu Township, according to AOW.  About 70 villagers fled to Thailand and Malaysia after protests were made against CNOOC.

Arakan rights activists said the oil and gas projects in Arakan State have not benefited landowners or villagers, and the companies violate human rights and cause environment damage. 

Meanwhile, CNPC announced on Nov. 3 that it had begun construction on the gas pipeline which will run through Burma into Yunnan Province in China. The Burmese government has agreed to sell gas to China in a contract that will provide up to US $30 billion to the Burmese government.



Carter Helps Build Homes in Mekong Region

Nov 16, 2009, Irrawaddy news,

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Former US President Jimmy Carter helped the housing charity that he champions, Habitat for Humanity, launch a campaign on Monday to build homes for 50,000 families in the Mekong River region over the next five years.

Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, are among 3,000 volunteers from 25 countries working with Habitat for Humanity this week to help build and repair homes along the Mekong River in Thailand, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Laos.

Former US president Jimmy Carter (Photo: AFP)

The homes in Cambodia are being built for families currently living in a garbage dump, the ones in Vietnam are for fishermen who currently live on their boats, and the project in China involves construction of an apartment building in a part of Sichuan Province devastated by a 2008 earthquake.

“In an area of the world where many people live in deplorable conditions, we have a chance to help families improve their housing,” said Carter, wearing sneakers, jeans and a work shirt. He and his wife spent Monday helping build homes in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai Province, where 82 will be constructed in honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who celebrates his 82nd birthday next month.

Habitat for Humanity’s Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Reckford said the Georgia-based nonprofit group decided to scale up its activities in the Mekong region over the next five years because the needs were so great.

“This is an area that gets less attention than some other parts of the world,” Reckford said. “But if you look at income levels, there are huge numbers of families living at terribly low levels—at a dollar a day. There is a huge deficit of decent housing, so it starts with the need.”

Carter, who spent the morning filling in the foundation cracks of a home, said his experience over the years with Habitat has been a rare chance to work along with some of the world’s poorest families. He was joined by several regional celebrities, including Chinese movie star Jet Li and Japanese football legend Hidetoshi Nakata.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for me and my wife to break down the barriers that exist between rich people like us and those in need who have never had a decent home,” Carter said. “Every year when we have been in a place side by side with Habitat families, we have always benefited more than we contributed. We have always come out ahead.”

Alongside Carter, the several hundred volunteers worked with the new homeowners under a blazing sun to build the foundations and start work on the doors and windows for the homes, which were expected to be finished on Friday. Among the volunteers were the US Ambassador Eric John and scores from American companies, including 65 from Delta Airlines.

“It’s a good feeling to see everything built for these families,” said Carl Leon-Guerrero, a Delta customer service supervisor from Nashville, Tennessee. “As a native of Guam, I know what Asian communities go through with the typhoons and monsoons. So it’s good to see a concrete home for these families.”

Since its founding in 1976, Habitat has built and rehabilitated more than 300,000 homes worldwide, providing simple shelter for 1.5 million people.



40 Dead After Ship Sinks in Pathein

Nov 16, 2009, Irrawaddy news,

Forty passengers were killed after two ships collided in Pathein Township in Irrawaddy Division at 7 p.m. On Sunday, according to an official from the Inland Water Transport office in Pathein.

A private passenger ship, the Nay Myo Tun No.8413, hit an oil tanker and sank in the Nga Wun River, 10.5 km [6.5 miles] from Pathein, the official said, adding that most of the 176 passengers were women and children. Rescue teams were still searching for survivors on Monday afternoon.
The official said that the Inland Water Transport office in Pathein is investigating the circumstances of the accident.



Rakhine Refugees Suffer Discrimination in Bangladesh

Nov 11, 2009, Irrawaddy news,

COX’S BAZAAR, Bangladesh – Since the Burmese military regime came to power in 1988, refugees have poured over the Naf River from Arakan State to seek asylum in neighboring Bangladesh. The majority of these refugees have been Rohingya Muslims who human rights groups argue are fleeing ethnic cleansing by the ruling State Peace and Development Council.

However, the Rohingya are not the only ethnic people in Arakan State fleeing persecution from the Burmese government and its armed forces; thousands of Arakanese Buddhists, commonly called Rakhine, have also fled to Bangladesh where their plight has largely been forgotten by the international community.

“We get very little assistance and, when we do, it usually ends up being hard to receive and full of complications,” said Thant Sin who, like everyone The Irrawaddy spoke to in interviews for this article, requested to use a false name.

A student organizer during the 1996 uprising in Sittwe, Thant Sin knew that if he remained in Burma and was caught by the security forces, he would have received a lengthy prison sentence. He escaped, hiking through the jungle for 15 days not knowing what he would do when he reached Bangladesh.

“I didn’t know anything about Bangladesh or what I would do there, but I knew I had to escape,” he said.

Thant Sin has registered with the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, and has received a UN identity card, which states in English and Bengali that the holder should not be forcefully repatriated to Burma. However, he said he does not feel much safer because of numerous reported incidents of Bangladeshi police ripping up Rakhine refugees’ cards and forcing them to pay bribes.

Bangladesh has not acceded to the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, leaving all the country’s refugees in a legal limbo and lacking protection.

Thant Sin expressed a common belief among Buddhist refugees in Bangladesh that the Bangladeshi authorities are not prepared to help them because of their religion.

“If we were Muslims it would be different. We would be allowed to go into the camps and benefit from the assistance and security they receive,” he explained. “There’s no difference between us—we’re all refugees who have left Burma because of oppression and forced labor. Why can’t we be treated the same?”

Rakhine refugees are processed differently from the Rohingya and are granted “urban refugee” status. Their office of contact is in Dhaka, some 370 km [230 miles] from Cox’s Bazaar, and they complain this is too far for them to travel, with their transport costs seldom refunded.

The UNHCR used to provide Rakhine refugees with a small allowance, but this has been discontinued, except in special cases.

Arjun Jain, the senior protection officer for the UNHCR in Dhaka, told The Irrawaddy that the agency is trying to build the confidence of the refugees so they can become more self-reliant.

“We have stopped giving out as many allowances as we did before, because we saw this wasn’t effective,” he said. “We feel it’s important to develop the capacity of the refugees so they don’t feel dependent on the UNHCR.”

However, Thant Sin said that it’s impossible for the Rakhine—the largest ethnic group in Arakan State— to make a living or open a business in Bangladesh because locals “won’t buy from an Arakanese shop.

“Nor can we get work permits,” he added.

One family told The Irrawaddy how they had opened a grocery store a couple of years ago with a grant from the UNHCR. Six months later, they had to close the store because none of the locals would shop there, despite it having the lowest prices in the area.

Relations with the locals are a major concern for the Rakhine refugees. Often the Arakanese try to conceal their Burmese origins, but have problems with the Bengali language. Most of the long-term refugees pretend to be Bangladeshi Rakhine in order to avoid abuse from the locals who see Burmese refugees as a heavy burden on their underdeveloped country’s economy. 

Even Buddhist monks from Arakan State are not immune to abuse. “When we walk past, they shout ‘Barmajar’ at us, labeling us refugees from Burma,” Ashin Thawbanar , a monk leader during the Saffron Revolution, told The Irrawaddy from his monastery in Cox’s Bazaar.

“When we are collecting our morning alms and we hear them shouting that, we feel threatened and humiliated,” he said.

Ashin Thawbanar spent months in hiding from the Burmese authorities after the monk-led uprising was violently put down by Burma’s security forces in 2007. Feeling he had run out of places to go, he was forced to seek refuge in Bangladesh.

However, when he applied to the UNHCR in Dhaka his case was rejected on the grounds that some criteria were not met in the interview.

He told The Irrawaddy that the UN interviewer questioned how he was able to flee Burma if indeed security was so tight. 


He was left in Bangladesh without any assistance and, most importantly, without a UN card which he feels is necessary to travel safely and receive alms—the food a Buddhist monk survives on.

“We hear stories of ‘urban refugees’ being arrested by the police for no reason,” he said. “I heard of one man who was killed because he was Burmese. It makes us afraid every time we go outside.”

He said that he appealed against the UN decision in March but still hasn’t received anything, not even a letter from the UNHCR to confirm they had received his claim.

 “I’ve given up hoping for anything. I can’t go back to Burma and I can’t leave Bangladesh. I’m stuck here,” he said.

Some refugees The Irrawaddy spoke to claim the UNHCR currently has close to a 100 percent rejection rate toward Rakhine refugees, and believe the agency is trying to keep numbers down to avoid upsetting the Bangladeshi government.

Nay Htoo, an economics student from Sittwe, was in his final year of university when he and four friends participated in the “Vote No” campaign against the 2008 constitutional referendum. Following a crackdown on university students he fled to Bangladesh to escape Burmese military intelligence.

Having applied to be recognized as a UN refugee, he was surprised to find out that only one of the people in his group had been accepted and the rest rejected.

“I don’t really understand how that is possible,” he said. “We all came together and had the same story, but they said three of us were not telling the truth.”

The UNHCR’s Arjun Jain told The Irrawaddy that rejections had increased in the last year and suggested that some of the refugees were being tutored what to say before their interviews. He said that all decisions are made “exceptionally carefully” and that they re-open cases if they believe a mistake has been made.

For the refugees who are accepted, very few families have been allowed to resettle in third countries. Desperate to leave Bangladesh, three Rakhine families held a hunger strike outside the UNHCR Dhaka office in October, demanding a response to their resettlement interview.

The families said they were invited by UNHCR for resettlement interviews two years before at the Cox’s Bazaar office, however never heard anything further, and when they requested information they were told that their interview documents had been lost.

“We travelled to Dhaka to show our displeasure that they lost our interview documents and demand action be taken,” one of the family members told The Irrawaddy.

She said she fled to Bangladesh with her family having worked on a forced labor camp in Arakan State for two years. With ailing health and insufficient money to pay off the Burmese authorities to exempt her from the work camp she felt she had to escape.

“We are suffering so much in Bangladesh,” she said. “We can’t earn enough money to survive and we all have medical problems which aren’t being properly dealt with.”

In the meantime, the UNHCR has taken over from a local NGO in looking after the “urban refugees.” It says it will be stepping up assistance to them.

However, few if any Rakhine refugees in Cox’s Bazaar expect their lot to get better in Bangladesh.

INGO Office Attacked after Arakanese Nurse Harassed

Irrawaddy news, 30  Oct 2009

Following an incident with a female staffer, 500 Arakanese surrounded the local office of the French international non-governmental organization Aide Médicale Internationale (AMI) and attacked its office and vehicles in Buthidaung Township in Arakan State in Western Burma on Wednesday, according to local sources.

“A Muslim officer working for AMI harassed a female Arakanese staff nurse, who reported the accident to authorities,” said a source in the township who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“When the police went to arrest him, AMI refused to hand him over. Incensed Arakanese youths who had gathered outside then attacked the office and AMI vehicles,” the source said.

“Youths threw stones at the AMI office,” an eye-witness said. “AMI vehicles were destroyed and electricity to the building was cut off.”
The two-hour attack took place on Wednesday evening, although the quarrel between the two staffers happened earlier in the afternoon and ended when security forces arrived, NGO sources in Buthidaung said.

Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, a staffer for AMI’s country office in Rangoon said they had discussed a report from their Buthidaung office.

“The situation has returned to normal and was not as bad as first reported,” the AMI staffer said, adding that authorities had ordered NGO staff not to talk to the media about the incident.

AMI provide medicine to local people in the Buthidaung-Maungdaw area, the staffer said. Along with foreign staff, Arakanese and Rohingya Muslims work together at the INGO.

On Friday afternoon, NGOs and UN agencies operating in Burma held a meeting to discuss the incident at the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Rangoon. 

Following the incident, the army in Budthidaung Township had to calm the situation. The Rohingya NGO staffer was detained, local sources reported.

When contacted by The Irrawaddy, an officer at Rangoon Police Headquarters declined to comment, saying he did not know anything about the incident.

The Buthidaung-Maungdaw area is historically sensitive. Bloody riots between Arakanese and Muslim Rohingyas have periodically broken out since British colonial times. Rumors of Muslim men raping Arakanese women have sparked race riots.

In the 1990s, the Burmese military junta launched a military offensive against the Muslim minority in the area, causing hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee into Bangladesh.

The junta and some scholars disagree about the use of the term Rohingya for the Muslim minority in Arakan State, saying that these people were originally “Bengali.” 

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