Monthly Archives: January 2011

Burmese migrant workers: caught between a tyrant and a tiger

Source from :
24 January 2011 ,

Malaysia’s economic boom has been driven by the exploitation of cheap migrant labour, from Burma and Thailand. Underpaid and with no rights, this is their story

MDG : Foreign workers in Malaysia

Malaysia’s economic boom has been fuelled by cheap foreign labour. Photograph: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

They were not illegal, nor criminals, not protesting nor agitating. For 900 Malaysian ringgits (around $290) a month they had travelled, through a broker, to the southern Malaysian town of Johor. There to bend the metal, mould the bars and solder the nuts that will bolt together the terrific rise in Asia’s economies.

However the 35 Burmese workers found that, after two months, instead of the promised amount, they were to receive 640 a month, with no overtime pay, as promised.

So the workers organised, led by five individuals. They initially complained to their employers.

The employers immediately called the police, all 35 were detained on 12 January. No charges were brought, and 30 were released that day.

"Whenever workers do actually complain to their employers or against [them], employers tend to discriminate against them or even terminate [their contracts]," says pioneering Malaysian human rights lawyer, Charles Hector.

Before any legal rationale could be brought, or advocates or government bodies mobilised, the five leaders were whisked away to the airport for deportation, because, as Hector notes, "the employer wins by default if they are deported", they cannot compete in a labour dispute, and migrant workers are not allowed to be members of a union or stay in Malaysia without employment.

Out of the five leaders who complained, three have been forced back to Burma despite signing a three-year contract, two, however are missing.

Malaysia’s growing "tiger economy", is driven by a workforce of around 20% migrant labour, with an estimated 500,000 from Burma, many of them illegal, taking their place at the bottom of Malaysia’s semi-apartheid ethnic mix.

With GDP per capita hard to record in Burma, the IMF estimated in January 2009 that it was around $250. This compares with the IMF’s 2010 estimate for Malaysia of $7,775.

Despite a constitution and laws pertaining to universal rights in Malaysia, law enforcement and other political precedence places migrant workers at immediate disadvantage. All companies in Malaysia that hire foreign labour are required to pay a levy. This is very often deducted from workers’ pay, even though the practice was made illegal in April 2009.

Tun Tun, head of Burma Campaign Malaysia, notes that the overwhelming ethos is for employers to take responsibility for their workers as opposed to the workers having rights as individuals. He points out that when you arrive in Malaysia as a tourist, you need no visa and can rapidly leave the airport. However, migrant workers have to wait for their employer to pick them up and take them, in custodial fashion, to wherever they please.

Not all Burmese are just economic migrants. Many of those who eke out a living between the concrete apartment buildings and highways of Kuala Lumpur have fled political oppression in their homeland.

Kyaw Hsan was jailed in Burma at the age of 15. His "crime" was distributing pamphlets about democracy, with news and information that circumvented Burma’s draconian military censors. He would leave pamphlets on the roof of a bus, so as it drove through the streets of Rangoon they would flutter down, as innocently as freshly falling rain. He was picked up outside a meeting of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy on 16 September 2000.

His confinement was marked with weeks of torture, including night-long beatings by teams of guards. This was followed, in 2003, by periods of up to 32 days chained to a wet floor with dozens of other prisoners for protesting the rearrest of Aung San Suu Kyi.

He contracted tuberculosis, which quarantined him for a further year after his release from Rangoon’s colonial-era Insein jail.

Beyond the scars marking his body, and despite his affable nature, the psychological toll is unmistakable. At the time of writing, a combination of dislocation, alcohol and the breakdown of a relationship had led to angry outbursts, which saw him lose his job as a waiter.

In exile

The isolation is palpable in divided Kuala Lumpur. On a busy rush hour Kyaw Hsan intervenes to protect a young Burmese who has been set upon by up to a dozen Malays. They beat him and take his phone, but he mistrusts the police so much that a foreign escort to the station to report it is deemed necessary.

Ko Harun, meanwhile, has weathered exile for longer. He fled his native Burma because of thediscrimination faced by the Rohingya minority. The Rohingya, he estimates along with many observers, are the most oppressed minority in Burma; despite having been in the country for about 1,000 years, they are denied citizenship rights.

Since he left Burma he has been arrested four times in Thailand and five times in Malaysia. In Thailand he says he was caged up with gang members who would violently steal his rations.

He has been "sold" to traffickers by Thai officials, after being handed over by Malaysian authorities. He was lucky enough to be able to borrow the fee to remove himself from bondage.

Conditions in Malaysian jails are horrendous, causing what the Malaysian press call riots but are actually hunger strikes or peaceful protests, complaining about the overcrowding, the constant outbreaks of leptospirosis, a disease caused spread through urine-contaminated water, or simply the length of detention.

The two missing worker leaders have not been heard from. Like an estimated 190,000 other Burmese in Malaysia, they are at the mercy of a divided, hungry nation.

UN Calls for ‘Protection’ Access to Rohingya

Source from:
Wednesday, January 26, 2011

CONCERNS are mounting about the treatment of two boatloads of would-be Rohingya and Bangladeshi refugees being trucked to the Thai border port of Ranong and for two more boatloads that have reportedly been ”helped on” at sea.

The United Nations has asked the Thai Government for access to 158 men who came ashore in two boats on Thailand’s southern Andaman coast over the weekend.

”We would like to determine if they are in need of international protection,” said UN Human Rights Commission spokesperson Andrej Mahecic, speaking from Geneva. ”We are definitely keen to gain access to these people.”

A source in Ranong said that the first group of 91 men, now being held at a local detention centre, were categorised as ”Burmese from the south” rather than as Rohingya.

As Burmese, it would be possible for Thai authorities to repatriate the men to Burma, but as Rohingya, a stateless Muslim minority group constantly persecuted within Burma, they would be in fear of their lives and have clear-cut claim to refugee status.

A second group of 67 men who arrived on Sunday was reported to be being transferred by truck from the southern province of Satun to Ranong today.

Villagers close to Ranong, a busy port frequented by traders, said today that they had ”helped on” two boatloads of men, one containing 66 and the other 40, on January 19. Military authorities had since told the villagers not to inform the media of this, National Channel Breaking News reported.

Several other boatloads of Rohingya may be off the Andaman coast of Thailand, according to information from Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, and sailing south to what they hope will be sanctuary in Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Colonel Chayawut Chansomboon, head of Immigration in Satun, confirmed that the two boatloads of men had arrived over the weekend. He said the intention was to send the men to the International Detention Centre in Bangkok, but the 1500-capacity centre was full.

”Authorities decided to send them to Ranong, where there is space for 300,” he said. The second boatload was undergoing health checks, fingerprinting and debriefing yesterday and would be trucked to Ranong today, he said.

Ranong Immigration centre has a poor reputation for the care of would-be Rohingya refugees.

Two Rohingya teenagers died in the custody of Ranong Immigration in 2009 and others were bent double and transferred to Bangkok after several months of being squeezed into inadequate accommodation, with no sunlight or exercise. Rohingyas who arrived on that boat two years ago remain in detention, the UNHCR confirmed.

The novel definition of Rohingya as ”Burmese from the south” may explain why, when Phuketwan called Ranong Immigration today, a spokesman said: ”We have no Rohingya here.”

The boatloads are the first to arrive in Thailand since 2009, rekindling the human rights outrage of the ”pushbacks” by the Thai military that led to the deaths of hundreds of Rohingya. The Rohingya were towed out to international waters and cut adrift, with no power and little food.

Since then, the Royal Thai Navy is known to have ”helped on” at least one Rohingya boat that made it to Malaysia last year.

The Rohingya boats, with passengers exposed to sun and rain, are generally without navigation aids and put to shore whenever food runs low, without being certain whether they are in Thailand or further south.

Second Rohingya Boat Lands South of Phuket..

By Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison

Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Occupants of the second boat are assembled in Satun province
A SECOND boatload of Rohingya and Bangladeshis has landed south of Phuket just one day after the first vessel, compounding concern about what will happen if hundreds more stateless would-be refugees follow.

Local authorities in two southern Thai provinces now have to assess these unwelcome newcomers by establishing their identities, checking their health, taking their fingerprints, then deciding what to do with them.

The 67 men on the second boat that landed on Sarai island in Tarutao National Park in Satun on Sunday appeared younger but just as hungry and exhausted as the 91 all-male occupants of the first boat that came ashore in Trang the previous day.

It’s two years this week since the last boatload of Rohingya arrived in Thailand, concluding a tragic chapter of human rights abuse. Rohingya refugees were first secreted on an Andaman island then towed out to international waters and abandoned as part of Thailand’s covert ”pushbacks” policy. Unknown numbers, probably hundreds, perished at sea before survivors reached India and Indonesia.

The reprehensible policy ended when the South China Morning Post newspaper disclosed what was happening in a series of articles. That was two years ago, yet the last boatload of Rohingya to arrive and escape the ”pushbacks” remains in a detention centre in Bangkok.

Local Satun fishermen raised the Rohingya alarm anew on Sunday when they spotted the unusual boat and its bedraggled occupants in the national park. The first boat took 12 days to travel south towards supposed sanctuary in Malaysia, and it’s likely that the second boat departed from northern Burma or Bangladesh about the same time.

With one group of Rohingya still in detention after two years, it’s probable that the same course of action will be taken with these two new groups until Thailand can find an acceptable solution to the entire region’s unanswered question of what to do with unwanted Rohingya.

Some among the boatload from January 2009 eventually declared themselves to be citizens of Bangladesh, which entitled them to repatriation. Genuine Rohingya, though, denied citizenship in Burma or anywhere else, have no home to go back to.

Visit Tangpong, police chief in Trang province’s Kantang district, told the AFP news agency that the new arrivals would be trucked straight back to Burma. But unless Burma’s policy has changed, the Rohingya will not be accepted across the border.

"We are providing basic humanitarian assistance with food and water, but they were illegal immigrants,” he told AFP. ”We have to follow our laws."

A different account emerged from Colonel Chawarat Plangsang, superintendent of the Satun city police station, who said: ”Special branch police arrested these men and passed them on to us. We will check their health, fingerprint them, take photos, and hear what they have to say.

”Tomorrow (Tuesday) we will pass them on to Immigration.”

It’s anticipated both groups will be taken and held in Ranong, the border port in Thailand opposite the Burmese port of Victoria Point, where two teenage members of the previous boatload of Rohingya died in custody, and where others suffered crippling afflictions after being kept indoors without exercise or sunshine for months.

Seven of Sunday’s arrivals carried cards that identified them as Bangladeshis. Several other boats are reported to be on the water, sailing south, but as with the first two boats, they may be forced ashore by hunger and exhaustion before they reach Malaysia.

Just one Rohingya boat is believed to have reached Malaysia in the past two years, and the occupants were taken into detention. Malaysia also applies caning as a penalty for illegal arrivals.

The Thai Navy ”helped along” the Rohingya boat with food. Rear Admiral Choomnoom Ardwong, commander of the Third Navy, based in Phang Nga and Phuket, said yesterday that Navy vessels patrolled Thai waters north of Phuket and intercepted any unusual boats.

”Now these boats are appearing in the south,” he said. Navy patrols mostly take place in northern waters. ”Our local networks would let us know if they spotted anything unusual. People in the south are less aware of what to do if a strange vessel approaches.”

The last group to arrive safely in Thailand in 2009 told authorities that several among them had been severely beaten and burned by Burmese officials, when they happened to go ashore prematurely. Those men were patched up in a Ranong hospital before being sent into detention.

Initially, military authorities believed that the passengers on the Rohingya boats were all-male because the men had been recruited to join the deadly insurgency in the southern Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.

Only after Thailand’s leading forensic scientist Dr Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand checked boats for residues of explosives was in accepted that the Rohingya menfolk travelled alone because they considered the voyage too perilous for their womenfolk to undertake.

Thailand’s Foreign Minister, Kasit Piromya, visited the boatload of 62 Rohingya and Bangladeshis in detention in Ranong two years ago. He was coincidentally in Burma at the weekend to meet democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and talk to the country’s military rulers.

Refugee policy needs to be about more than boats & Problems face by Rohingya asylum-seekers

source from:
By Susan Metcalfe – posted Friday, 31 December 2010..

For too many years our governments have been tying themselves in knots trying to "stop the boats" but perhaps now is the time for all sides to give up the short term political bandaids and work on finding some genuine strategies for the world’s most desperate people.

Under the Howard government’s reign asylum seekers and refugees were pushed back, pushed offshore, pushed around, pushed to the brink, and sadly, to breaking point. But as I have recently written, the Howard government’s tough intentions were shown to be unworkable when it gave up its attempts to return 83 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in 2007 because the men’s safety could not be guaranteed in Indonesia. Further documents released under FOI reveal that another attempted return in 2006 also amounted to futile and illogical posturing from the Howard government.

In August 2006, when 8 Rohingya men were dumped by Indonesian crew members on Australia’s Ashmore Island, the negotiations quickly began with the Malaysian government to force their return. The men had departed on a fishing boat from Indonesian shores but for years previously they had marked time in Malaysia, making weekly visits to UNHCR offices while they waited for a resettlement opportunity that never arrived.


Burmese Rohingyas are some of the most persecuted and oppressed people on earth but when these men entered the Australian political battlefield their suffering became as irrelevant here as it is in Burma, or in Malaysia. Some of the conditions faced by Burmese refugees in Malaysia are documented in a recent Amnesty International report which claims: "Refugees who fled torture and forced labour in Burma told Amnesty International how Malaysia (which does not recognise refugees) caned them for immigration violations, sometimes repeatedly".

The released DFAT documents reveal that in the weeks after the men’s arrival to Australia, after what seems to have been a fruitless approach to UNHCR to become involved (the deletions in the documents make it impossible to be certain of details), a direct bilateral approach to Malaysia to accept the return of the men was discussed.

One cable from Canberra on 8 September 2006 asked for the views of the Kuala Lumpur post on the "likely efficacy of a direct approach to Home Affairs Secretary General". Another "restricted" cable on 19 September 2006 formally requested the Australian post to "make an approach to the Malaysian Secretary-General on the readmission of Burmese unauthorised arrivals".

The details of the request to Malaysia are deleted from the released cables, as are so many other paragraphs that I can only wish for Wikileaks to come to our rescue. The exemption of information from these documents again gives rise to long held questions on what kind of deals are being negotiated with other countries without our knowledge and around the substance of the information that is regularly protected from our view.

By this stage the Burmese men, all UNHCR registration card carriers, had been transferred from Christmas Island to Nauru and further documents discuss the possibility of forcing the men to return to Malaysia from Nauru. An "Immigration-In-Confidence" document on 25 September 2006 states:

DIMA is currently putting in place voluntary, or, if necessary, involuntary return arrangements for the group. If involuntary return is necessary Australia will need to seek the agreement of the Government of Nauru as the group is within the jurisdiction of Nauru.


Another DFAT cable, sent to Canberra from the Kuala Lumpur post on 17 October, outlines the discussions taking place with the Malaysian Government. But the information offered seems to have been based only on loose speculation:

We indicated we were expecting the return to be voluntary. To this end we would be providing counselling to the returnees before and during the flight. However, we noted that it was possible the returnees may fail to cooperate after arrival.

How anyone could arrive at these conclusions remains unclear, particularly when a return to Malaysia had not even been raised with the men, one of whom was still in Perth receiving medical treatment. At the time, seven of the men had just spent more than a week with their legal representatives from Melbourne’s Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, detailing their persecution in both Burma and in Malaysia. Their applications for Australian visas had been lodged on 15 October, just two days earlier. One of the men said at the time:

It was always very hard living in Malaysia. I never felt safe there because I knew that at any time I could be arrested, detained and then possibly sent back to Thailand and then to Burma. There were so many times I was stopped by police but, luckily for me, the police would always accept bribes not to arrest me. Usually I would have to pay them all the money I was carrying at the time.

We do know that by early December 2006, when the men were offered a deal to return to Malaysia, the idea of forcible return had been taken off the table, although we cannot be sure why. The final toned down offer was a choice between returning to Malaysia voluntarily, to be processed by Australian officials and with no guarantee of an Australian visa if they were found to be refugees, or remaining to be processed in Nauru with resettlement to be sought in any country but Australia. But by then it was well known that other countries were averse to resettling Australia’s refugees from Nauru and the men would simply be made to wait, until they were broken in mind and spirit, before coming to Australia.

The Rohingya men made it clear that they did not feel safe to return to Malaysia. But one man did finally succumb to the offer when he could no longer bear the separation from his children, who were then facing extreme difficulty. He simply broke down under the pressure and I can still remember holding his fearful, shaking hand as we coincidentally flew out from Nauru on the same plane. His only solace was found in the surprisingly positive signals he was receiving that his application would be successful from Malaysia and from knowing that the Malaysian Government had at least promised to tell UNHCR if they decided to deport him.

But his fear of returning to Malaysia was fortunately short lived when he was processed with remarkable speed by Australian officials and flown to Australia with a permanent visa. The men remaining in Nauru were left confused, as they grappled with Australia’s illogical policies. A cable on 20 December discussed the return offer that had been made to the men as a deterrent:

In considering the options for these men the Australian Government is mindful of regional efforts to combat people smuggling and deter irregular people flows. (section removed) In this light consideration of the return of the Burmese to Malaysia was given prominence.

But the "message" transmitted from this man’s return and fast-tracked resettlement seemed at best to be murky and, if anything, was more likely to have provided an incentive for boat travel – get on a boat and we will take you to Nauru for a few months, then fly you back to Malaysia, before bringing you and your family to Australia for permanent resettlement.

The thinking behind the deal seems as warped as the back slapping that later went on when an agreement was reached to swap refugees from Nauru with Haitian and Cuban refugees in the US in 2007. When that deal had been announced the so called people smugglers assumed that resettlement in the US was imminent for the 83 Sri Lankan men in Nauru and they immediately started calling to demand their final "arrival at destination" payments. The "message" that went out then was that if you get on a boat to come to Australia you will be taken to Nauru and given a green card to reside in the US.

The Coalition has never been able to admit that its addiction to short term political fixes for boat arrivals had led it into a contorted mess of policies and actions that were ultimately ineffective and that simply toyed, cruelly, with the lives of vulnerable human beings.

We can only be grateful that the Rudd government spared us the cost of a detour flight to Malaysia when the remaining Rohingya men were finally resettled in Australia at the end of 2007. But when the politics of asylum seekers intensified earlier this year the Rudd government itself could not resist the same kind of panicked spasms that were now the familiar trademarks of the Howard era, including suspensions on processing and tough talk of rejecting applications.

All but a few on the extreme left, along with those on the right who apparently enjoy the political opportunities offered by boat arrivals, want the boats to stop coming. But history tells us that no matter how much our politicians push and shove these human beings and twist themselves into irrational actions and empty sloganeering, boat arrivals are not so easily controlled and lulls will be temporary.

For too long now Australians have been drawn, over and over, into an exchange of sensationalist barracking over the illogical and punitive policy options presented by both sides. All we talk about are the boats, while the wider problems that force people on to the seas are ignored and the vulnerable, persecuted people are pushed only into seeking out more dangerous options, if not here then somewhere else. There is little truth in much of the heated commentary that fills our media space and little that is useful for Australia.

Julia Gillard needs to lead us out of an ea of short term political reactions and offer us a broader and more courageous view that embraces the facts and the human realities and ignores the Opposition’s calls for a return to failed and illogical policies. Otherwise, it will be déjà vu all over again.

If we are so desperate to talk about refugees and asylum seekers then the debate we need to be having is about how the world’s most needy can access the protection that they need. Is that not stating the obvious? UNHCR estimates that only one in ten of the people currently needing resettlement will ever find it – so where should all the others go?

There is much that we can debate, much that Australia could contribute to seeking solutions for people stranded throughout the region, but we have to be capable of talking about much more than just the boats.

About the author: Susan Metcalfe is a writer and researcher who made many independent visits to the Nauru detention centre during the time of the Howard government’s Pacific Solution policy. She is the author of the recently published book The Pacific Solution (Australian Scholarly Publishing

Authorities have plans to destroy Rohingya homes

Kaladan Press, Monday, 24 January 2011

Maungdaw, Arakan State: The group of authorities responsible for collecting family lists and photographs of Rohingyas is planning to issue more orders to have Rohingya homes destroyed, according to an official of the Maungdaw Village authority.

“The group is going to check Rohingya homes and around the housing compounds. They are looking for any changes to the houses like repairs, extensions, or additions of new buildings.”

“This is first time they are doing like this. Usually the authorities only check family lists and collect photographs, while collecting more money from the Rohingya community.”

This year after January 20, the group is going to begin checking entire house compounds, especially the backsides of homes, said a village elder.

The authorities are led by U San Win, the Head of Immigration of Maungdaw Township who has ordered the destruction of two homes from Block 2 due to allegations of building without permission. However, the homes were built more than ten years ago and the owners obtained permission from concerned authorities of Maungdaw to repair their homes, the elder said.

“One family had made repairs to their toilet, which the authorities said was illegal because permission was not granted to add extensions to the home. The Rohingya community in northern Arakan State traditionally builds their bathrooms outside of their homes.”

“Another homeowner had permission to make repairs to his home, and he built a balcony onto his home. But the authorities said this was illegal and ordered the entire home to be destroyed.”

This is new method of the authorities to oppress the Rohingya community by ordering their homes and property to be destroyed, said a villager from Maungdaw.

Additionally, the Township Peace and Development Council (TPDC) has ordered the Village Peace and Development Council (VPDC) to collect paddy from Rohingya farmers in the name of a relief fund at the rate of five tins per acre, according to a famer from Maungdaw.

“In the past, the TPDC also collected our paddy like this, supposedly for relief, but the paddy was sold to officials in Maungdaw who sold it on to Bangladesh for money. This is just another way for the authorities to hurt and exploit the Rohingya community.”

Thailand to Deport 91 Rohingya to Burma

Voice of America, 24th Jan 2011,

Police in Thailand said Monday they will deport 91 Rohingya boat people who landed on the country’s southern coast while fleeing from Burma.

Authorities say the group was detained after coming to shore on Saturday evening with engine problems as they tried to make their way to Malaysia.

The United Nations describes the Muslim, Bengali-speaking Rohingya of Burma as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

Mainly Buddhist Burma effectively denies citizenship and property rights to the Rohingya, leading to their exploitation and prompting many to flee the country.

Human rights activists have in the past accused the Thai navy of towing Rohingya asylum-seekers back to sea and setting them adrift.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP.

Soldiers charged with human trafficking

Source from Malaymail, 20th Jan 2011,

KANGAR: Two soldiers were charged in the Sessions Cour here today with trafficking in 16 Myanmar citizens including four women, aged between 15 and 48 years, in December last year.

Mohd Rashidi Abd Halim, 36, and Mohd Johari Abu, 28, who are from Jitra, Kedah and are attached to a military camp in Bukit Kayu Hitam, Kedah, however, pleaded not guilty to the charge.

The duo are alleged to have committed the offence at around 10.40pm at a sugar cane farm in Chuping, Perlis.

If convicted, they are liable to be jailed not more than 15 years or fined or both.

Judge Wan Norzanuar Wan Ahmad set bail at RM6,000 each in one surety each and Feb 22 for the trial.

Deputy public prosecutor Norsalihah Sulaiman appeared for the prosecution while both accused by represented by counsel Rahmathullah Baharudeen.

92 illegal immigrants arrested

Source from Malaymail, Friday, January 21st, 2011

PETALING JAYA: The Selangor Immigration Department has stepped up its operation against illegal immigrant activities in Damansara Perdana following the detention of 30 illegal immigrants in a bus there a week ago.

Ninety-two illegal immigrants were detained in a raid on a construction site ‘kongsi’ on Wednesday night.

During the raid, carried out at 10pm, the immigrants tried to hide beneath the wooden floor of the "kongsi" and bushes behind the building.

The department’s deputy director, Kamal Bahrin Atan, said the raid was conducted after they had received numerous complaints about the presence of immigrants there.

“We found they didn’t have valid personal documents and working permits. Most of them only had copies of their travel documents.”

The detainees were taken to the Selangor Immigration Department in Shah Alam.

Tun Tun, BCM: ‘Migrant rights? No’

Source from DVB, 20 January 2011

Tun Tun, BCM: ‘Migrant rights? No’ thumbnailMalaysia is home to around 500,000 Burmese migrants, less than half of whom have been registered and thus hold a semblance of legal status in the country. Employers of migrant workers are often accused of exploiting their fragile existence in the country for their own gain, paying meagre wages and meting out abuse in the workplace. Tun Tun heads the Burma Campaign Malaysia (BCM), which campaigns for migrant workers’ rights.

Tun Tun, head of Burma Campaign Malaysia (Joseph Allchin)

How and why did you come to Malaysia?

I have been here for 17 years. I came because I was a student at Mandalay University and was involved in politics, and got in trouble so fled and became a migrant worker myself.

Following the case of 35 migrant workers who were arrested for asking for their contracts to be upheld, why did the police just end up targeting the five leaders?

In my experience in all the cases they always target the leaders. They think if they find and target the leaders the case will be settled, to scare the other workers.

What’s the relationship between the employers and the police?

That is a major concern here. All workers cannot speak out to the police. The police don’t understand the workers explanations. That’s the first problem. The second problem is that most of the law enforcement agencies here, whenever the local Malaysian people complain to them, they always take action against the foreigners – that is a problem. This was a labour dispute – it should have been dealt with in a labour court – but they never use this channel. They just use the police; they just arrive and arrest them and transfer them to immigration who deport them. It’s very easy for the employer and safe for the employer, so a lot of them use this channel.

How often do employers take workers documents?

According to Malaysian law, employers can’t keep workers’ documents, but the immigration department or police never take action against the employers. They all know that they keep the workers’ documents but do nothing. The Sinometal Technology Company took all their documents.

How do you advise migrant workers in Malaysia?

Wherever you go to work you can’t get good wages and you are not safe if you don’t keep your documents. Because you are not skilled, the employers will pay you around 700 to 800 [Malaysia Ringgit – $US230-260], so please don’t run away – if you don’t follow the contract we can’t help you.

How many illegal Burmese migrant workers do you think there are in Malaysia?

I think there are about 200,000 illegal Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia. The majority are men, very few women. They do various kinds of work – in restaurants, engineering, production, and so on.

Why do you advise them to keep hold of their documents?

The first thing is the levy. The Malaysian government charges employers a levy for employing foreign workers. Employers regularly deduct this fee from their workers’ salaries. However as of 1 April 2009 the Malaysian government announced that the employer cannot deduct the levy charge from the workers, but 90 percent of employers don’t follow this government order – they just deduct it. I had a case on 11 January where I complained about levy deduction from a workers’ leader named Hla Min, a Burmese migrant who works for DW Plastics Ltd, who complained for all workers when a total of 48,000 ringgits ($US15,730) was deducted.

Did he get in trouble?

No. They had no other problem apart from the levy. They wanted the employer to refund their money, so I went to the labour department and reported for them. In a month the employer will refund their money.

What happens when a worker is detained for not having the right documents?

Well, in Malaysia, if an Indonesian is detained they can get a travel document for 15 ringgits ($US5) per person and then they have to go back by boat or air. For our Burmese people, they have to pay their embassy 550 ringgits ($US180), or 900 ringgits ($US295). If you pay 500 ringgits you stay a very long time in the camp; if you pay 900 you get a fast process. Now workers are facing more problems because the Burmese government has introduced a new passport, so all the workers have to go the embassy and pay 4,000 ringgits ($US1310) per person, a very high price.

Why does the Malaysian government have these levies?

They want to reduce the number of migrant workers. They are facing a lot of social problems – they think it’s the migrant workers fault but it is not true. The Malaysian government is a pro-employer government; most of the politicians are nationalists, and that is a problem.

How is the experience of Malaysia different for different Burmese ethnic groups?

In Malaysia there are over 40 different ethnic organisations. Most are dedicated to registering refugees – in my experience they don’t concentrate on workers rights. I’m very sad about this.

How would you describe the UN High Commissioner for Refugee’s work for refugees here?

Every organisation is based on its members. Many of the ethnic organisations have good relations with UNHCR, but the UNHCR are also involved in a lot of corruption, particularly with registration of refugees and with resettlement.

How does it work with resettlement?

Three months ago, UNHCR resettled someone to New Zealand. The New Zealand authorities checked her biography and UNHCR had given a different biography, so the New Zealand authorities didn’t let her out of their camp. So it is very clear that it was a substitution for someone who is still here

Why? Did she pay UNHCR?

I think so, because at that time, one of my colleagues was resettled and he met this girl in the resettlement camp and he informed me.

How do migrants contact you?

We publish a newsletter in peninsula Malaysia. In this newsletter we have one article about migrants rights in Malaysia with our hotline number, so when they have a problem they contact us. We send the newsletter to Burmese shops around peninsula Malaysia and the shopkeeper sells it to migrant workers. It has no adverts and it is non-profit.

How difficult is it for migrant workers to access their legal rights?

I was also a migrant worker five years ago. My employer violated the law all the time. I knew he was wrong but I couldn’t point out correctly. So whatever the employer said to us, he was right. So I wanted to know the migrant rights in Malaysia and tell all our migrant workers because if they knew about this then they can demand it [their rights]. So I tried to translate the migrants rights into Burmese and distribute it.

How has it changed things?

It has had a good effect, because we put here that the employer cannot deduct levies, and that they can contact us or the trade union congress whenever. So after the workers read this they know the employers are wrong and they contact us and work out how they can get it refunded.

In Malaysia migrant workers will get injured or have health problems. What is access to healthcare like in Malaysia?

Whenever a Malaysian goes to hospital, they have to pay one ringgit ($US0.30) for registration. For the migrant worker it is 15 ringgit ($US5) for registration. After we pay the 15 ringgit the doctor puts you in a check room and then he tells us what we need [financially], and then we pay a deposit. If they can’t pay, then a there’s a problem. They have to borrow to pay the deposit of, say, 500 ringgits ($US163). This is discrimination against migrants. It is not only in hospitals, it is in all government agencies – for example, if a migrant wants to open a bank account they cannot freely open an account; they need an employer recommendation letter, while for local people no letter is needed.

Are migrant workers dependent upon employers, and why is this system in place?

According to Malaysian immigration law employers are responsible for their migrant workers. For example when a visitor comes they show their passport and can enter Malaysia, but when a migrant worker arrives they are not allowed to leave the airport until their employer arrives to pick them up. Moreover, we receive a lot of complaints about working conditions for migrant workers. They are abused physically and mentally.

Army abuse in Chin state ‘extraordinary’

Army abuse in Chin state ‘extraordinary’ thumbnailSource from DVB,
19th Jan 2011

Chin civilians engaged in forced labour (PHR)

State-sanctioned abuses in Chin state are widespread and in many cases may qualify as crimes against humanity, the authors of a comprehensive survey-based report claim.

The situation in Burma’s remote northwestern ethnic state has to date been left out of much of the debate on whether crimes against humanity and war crimes are occurring in Burma.

The UN is under pressure to launch an investigation into what legal experts claim is a mountain of evidence that suggests such crimes may have been committed by the Burmese military, particularly in the country’s ethnic border regions, such as Karen state.

A new report by the US-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), co-recipient of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize, adds fuel to that fire, alleging that it found “widespread reports of human rights violations among 621 randomly selected households” in Chin state. At least eight of those types of violations “fall within the purview of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and may constitute crimes against humanity”.

One in seven of these houses reported that at least one family member had been tortured or subjected to “inhumane treatment” by Burmese troops, who committed 98 percent of the recorded abuses, while 570 households were subjected to what qualifies under international law as a crime against humanity.

One third of all forcible conscriptions into the army were of children under the age of 15, which is illegal under both international law and Burmese domestic law. One in eight of the Chin households had at one point been forcibly displaced.

“The data don’t lie and this report puts in stark light the horrors that the Chin people are enduring,” said Frank Donaghue, CEO of Physicians for Human Rights, in a statement released with the report. “No nation has the right to oppress its people, but to the extent that we abandon those people, we allow the crimes to continue.” PHR’s deputy director, Richard Sollom, said that the levels of violence against civilians there was “extraordinary”.

The report includes a forward by former UN Chief Prosecutor Richard J. Goldstone and Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, who said that “the results are devastating”. Goldstone said that it should give further impetus to the UN to establish a Commission of Inquiry into whether crimes against humanity are being committed.

The survey comprised 87 questions asked by surveyors between February and March last year. Similar findings were recorded in a 2009 report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who called on the government in neighbouring Mizoram state in India to extend protection to Chin who have fled across the border.

Chin state has also been struck by a severe famine in recent years that stems from mass infestation of rats in farmland who devour crops and grain. The rats are attracted to the flowering of the bamboo plant, a phenomenon that occurs only twice a century.

UN probe must include all armed groups

Source from DVB, 12 January 2011,

Any UN Commission of Inquiry must be truly objective and should investigate all parties to the conflict in Burma. Practically, the threat of an investigation could do much to discourage violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. Politically, a comprehensive investigation might be less likely to antagonise the regime and could engender the support of more of the international community. Only such an impartial investigation could set the stage for real national reconciliation.

It is clear that the UN should instigate a Commission of Inquiry into international crimes committed in Burma. Failure to do so is evidence of its continued impotence and inertia. Egregious human rights abuses such as torture, extrajudicial killings, internal displacement, sexual violence and the use of child soldiers have been documented for decades. The scale and gravity of these breaches of international criminal law powerfully suggest that they amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. An objective investigation into the situation in Burma is therefore imperative.

While the actions of the Burmese government in its various guises are thoroughly deplorable, it must also be recognised that international crimes have been perpetrated by non-state armed groups in Burma. Reports of torture, forced labour and murder committed by these groups are less well-documented and must equally be investigated. Additionally, the recruitment of child soldiers and the use of land mines must urgently be examined. The Burma Lawyers’ Council is trying to educate non-state armed groups about humanitarian and human rights law in the hope that this will help them to adhere to international legal standards. The mere threat of an investigation could have immediate preventative effects and catalyse real change in the attitudes of all armed groups.

Additionally, a partisan inquiry could be politically counterproductive. An investigation only into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) would be seen, correctly, as a direct attack on the regime. It would be unlikely to engender cooperation from the military and would almost certainly muzzle any steps towards dialogue with the generals. China would be likely to seek to protect the regime in the belief that an international investigation would increase instability in the border regions.

When considering international investigations and judicial processes, we must look beyond the purely legal. Such processes also aim to be anthropologically cathartic. By giving victims of violence the opportunity to confront those held to have wronged them, these processes allow meaningful collective reconciliation and can avoid the perpetuation of enmity. The suggestion that only one party to a conflict is blameworthy denies the victims of other parties a voice. A one-sided investigation could deny the real harm suffered by thousands of civilians at the hands of non-state armed forces. Enmities could remain unresolved, or, as history has demonstrated, deepen. Beware victors’ justice. To be truly beneficial, a Commission of Inquiry must investigate the perpetration of crimes by all parties.

It is understandable that some members of the opposition movement might be uneasy about the investigation of anti-regime armed groups. At this stage, however, concerns about international prosecution are premature.Both the Tutsis and the Hutus were investigated by the Commission of Experts instructed by the UN Security Council to investigate the situation in Rwanda. The Hutu extremists were found to be ultimately responsible for the atrocities committed, and it was only they that were consequently prosecuted in the specially created international tribunal.

There is no established protocol for the creation of a Commission of Inquiry. An inquiry could be instigated by various bodies including the UN Security Council, the Secretary-General, the Human Rights Council or the International Labor Organization. The appeal of the first is that it is the only UN body that could force a referral to the International Criminal Court or set up another international tribunal. It is therefore arguable that only a Security Council mandated Commission of Inquiry would have any real potential bite.

A UN Commission of Inquiry would not be the first in Burma. In response to an ILO Commission of Inquiry, several Tatmadaw Kyi soldiers found guilty of recruiting minors were eventually punished. The Secretary-General’s 2010 report to the UN General Assembly on children and armed conflict states that a tiny number of child soldiers have been released through Burmese Government mechanisms. These commendable, if inadequate, steps demonstrate that objective investigations and recommendations can have some beneficial effect in and of themselves.

Notably, however, Commissions of Inquiry established by the Security Council with regard to the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Darfur were all part of a process that ultimately resulted in international criminal trials. We should not be too hasty to leap to criminal proceedings. Lawyers may talk about the integrity of the pursuit of international justice, but we are navigating inherently political waters. Even the ICC retains the right to refuse a case where an investigation may aggravate a conflict or destabilise a reconciliation effort. Highlighting this, some fear that the indictment of Omar al-Bashir has significantly hindered peace-building efforts in Darfur. Thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the functioning of the internationalised Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia is threatened by political discontent.

The creation of any international judicial mechanism for Burma is a long way off. Since Burma is not a party to the Rome Statute, the ICC cannot initiate proceedings without the order of the Security Council. More immediate concerns therefore include persuading China and Russia not to veto a Security Council mandated Commission of Inquiry. To that end it is critical that calls for an investigation are cogent, developed and impartial. Though political and economic interests may be difficult to overcome, it is likely that China would at least consider supporting measures with the potential to lay the groundwork for genuine security in the border areas.

Kirsty Ogilvie is a Fellow of International Criminal Law at the Burma Lawyers’ Council, and was called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2010

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