As expected, Burmese dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s release last month made no difference to the plight of millions of Burmese Muslims forced to flee Rangoon’s military rulers. With indifference to their plight from neighbouring governments, there are hundreds of thousands still in squalid refugee camps, while thousands have crossed the border into Thailand and Malaysia in hope of acquiring refugee status from the UNHCR.
Driven to desperation, eight Rohingya Muslims invaded the grounds of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Kuala Lumpur to plead for asylum. They were later joined by others, including women and children. “We will not leave this place [without an answer] even if we die first,” said Abdul Aziz, their spokesman. “We are already tired of life.”
It was not the first time the UN compound had been targeted by seekers of refugee status. In January scores of Rohingya Muslims stormed the centre to seek asylum, only to be handed over to immigration officials who would deport them to certain death or torture at the hands of Burma’s security force. Previous asylum appeals had always been rejected, although there was no other place for them to turn to as they were being persecuted in their own country.
Most Rohingya Muslims have been living a life of near beggary on streets in Thailand and Malaysia, with little effort to help them in the face of official indifference to their plight. With the Malaysian regime refusing to grant refugee status, despite well-documented grievances, many are forced to live without any documents, rendering them ‘illegal’ and their lives difficult because of constant fear. “They always reject our application, but we will keep coming back because there is nowhere else to go,” said one of the Rohingya Muslims.
Around 2,500 Rohingya Muslims fled Myanmar for Malaysia in 1991-92 after persecution by the army, but most were later handed over to the Malaysian police, equally notorious for their brutal treatment of ‘illegal immigrants’, the bulk of whom arrive from Bangladesh and Indonesia to seek menial jobs that locals shun. The poor police treatment of ‘illegals’ has been well documented.
But even if the UNHCR were to give them refugee status, Kuala Lumpur would not be bound by any international treaty to respect their rights. Refugees in Malaysia, unlike most other countries, are not permitted to attend school and are denied health care. Those caught without permits are quarantined in filthy ‘deportation’ camps before they are repatriated, far from international or even local monitoring. Scores of ‘illegal’ migrants have reportedly died of malnutrition and torture in such camps.
In August 2000, Human Rights Watch (New York) documented the treatment meted out by Malaysian authorities to Rohingya Muslims fleeing from the junta’s persecution of minorities. It noted that even individuals recognised as refugees by the UNHCR are arrested and deported, with many facing abuses including beatings, extortion and arbitrary detention. The group also accused the UNHCR office in Kuala Lumpur of not making enough effort to help Rohingya refugees. In 1999, for example, of nearly 1,600 applications by Rohingya for refugee status, only 43 were granted.
“While we sympathise with them, we have our limitations and we cannot just ignore the interest of other groups (seeking refugee status),” said a spokesman for the UNHCR. However, the truth is that Rohingyas form the bulk of those seeking political asylum in Malaysia. Most from other troubled areas in the region have either alternative destinations or have no reason to seek asylum after the end of domestic problems: for example the persecuted East Timorese who used to flee to Australia.
But with the Malaysian government not caring about their neighbours’ plight— partly because helping their poor next-door neighbours would not generate the kind of publicity that resulted from helping Bosnian Muslims—there is little that even UNHCR could do even if all sincere efforts were put into helping them to live as refugees. For a start, the Malaysian regime is enjoying more than cordial relations with the military junta in Rangoon, with the rulers’ cronies on both sides engaging in lucrative business deals.
Meanwhile, the Burmese junta will be overjoyed to know that the dissidents’ chances of gaining refugee status are slim. It charges that those who sought asylum in Malaysia were “pretenders” and were in fact “illegal workers”.
“The government of Myanmar [the junta’s name for Burma] is sending workers to Malaysia through proper official channels, creating difficulties for those who enter Malaysia illegally,” the junta said. Of course, by “proper channels” the junta means their cronies’ human-resource companies that have contracts with Malaysians to deal in human beings ‘legally’.