Myanmar refugees in Malaysia: confronting inhumanity – Rama Ramanathan

Mankind’s capacity for acting inhumanely has been much on my mind.
Refugees are asylum seekers, people who flee persecution in their own lands. Why do so many flee Myanmar? The International Rescue
Committee’s report “In Search of Survival and Sanctuary in the City: Refugees from Myanmar/Burma in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 2012” gives the reasons:
Forced labour/portering (25%); human rights abuses (15%); to escape arrest (12%); lack of work opportunities (8%); violence/attacks by the government (8%); to join family/get married (6%); other reasons (26%). [Page 8]
One refugee summarised:
“The reason we leave is because of human rights abuses. All of our belongings are taken away from us by the government; we are forced to porter for the army; our women have been raped and forced into marriages; our villages have been burned and our people killed. The government has taken everything from us. We have nothing.” [Page 8]
Other responses explain what is meant by “we have nothing”:
“Before the soldiers arrive, everything belongs to the village; but after the soldiers come, everything belongs to them. They take everything.” [Page 39]
“The government took our land to expand their military barracks in Arakan. Without our land, we could no longer farm. They told us we had to work for them to build their camp. We were forced to work until we completed the project. If we could not work, they forced the women in our family to work.” [Page 39]
When the hardships they were subjected to in Myanmar became intolerable, when their lands, homes and businesses were taken from them and they just couldn’t take it anymore, they decided to risk their lives and undertake the journey to Malaysia.
The top 3 ways they came to Malaysia were: by foot (28%), by car (20%) and by boat (16%). Their journeys were arranged by "agents", and they didn’t know the details of the route, despite paying between RM1,500 to 5,000 per person. [Page 41]
When they arrived in Malaysia, was their situation better? The research found:
“Just over 30% of the sample reported experiencing an abuse in the workplace, with non-payment and partial payment of wages being the most frequently reported problem.
Out of 311 respondents, 80% reported not receiving wages for work completed or only receiving partial wages.
The second most frequently reported problem was verbal abuse (42%), followed by on-the-job injury (15%), dismissal without reason
(15%) and physical abuse (6%).”
When the respondents were asked what they most needed, the top 3 responses were:
Information on resettlement and registration (40%), especially the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) Card which confers a variety of benefits including lower likelihood of being arrested and higher likelihood of being treated humanely by employers.
Assistance when they are abused (15%). Food, particularly to address malnutrition of children.
I am a sceptical reader and listener. For instance, outrage welled up within me last week when an “expert” Kundalini Yoga instructor
authoritatively claimed on BFM radio that our bodies take one day to digest vegetarian food, but take three days to digest meat.
I have spent much of my career assessing research for the purpose of making claims. I will vouch for this IRC report. Because of the
research methodology which was adopted, and despite the limitations inherent to conducting surveys in the informal sector of any society, I believe the research findings are reliable.
Despite the share of voice the Rohingya have in the media – and I don’t mean to underplay the neediness of the Rohingya – it is worth noting the ethnic composition of Myanmar refugees in Malaysia:
“… the sample generally followed the targeted proportions for each ethnic group, with the ethnic Chin comprising roughly 45% of the sample; Burma Muslim, Karen, and Kachin altogether comprising roughly 40% of the sample; and Arakan, Karenni, Mon, Shan, and Rohingya comprising 15% of the sample.” [Page 35]
Ah, yes. Ethnic composition. This is one of the most troubling things about human nature. Our grasping at our ethnicity for our identity poses great challenges for creating a nation, especially one like Myanmar where there are upwards of 135 ethnic groups. Each group values its history and wants to maintain its identity, even as refugees.
In Myanmar, citizenship depends upon ethnicity. This is article 3 of the Burma Citizenship Law (1982):
“Nationals such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine or Shan and ethnic groups as have settled in any of the
territories included within the State as their permanent home from a period anterior to 1823 AD are Burma citizens.”
Members of other ethnic groups may aspire only to the status of “associate citizens” or “naturalised citizens”. Persons with such status – some of whose roots in Myanmar go back several centuries – have limited access to freedom of expression and educational and electoral rights (International Bar Association. Rule of Law in Myanmar: Challenges and Prospects, page 27).
Since Chin, Kachin, and Karen are entitled to full citizenship in Myanmar, why are they fleeing Myanmar? Note the religious identification of the 1003 refugees in the sample:
“In terms of religion, the majority of the respondents are Christian (65%) with a minority belonging to the Buddhist (18%) or Muslim (16%) faiths.” [Page 35]
Many flee Myanmar because of the challenges of ethnicity: except for the Rohingya, the other ethnic groups in the list all have their own insurgent armies. Estimates of their troop sizes range from 600 to 30,000, with a total of 45,000 “insurgents” (see Medha Chaturvedi, Myanmar’s Ethic Divide: The Parallel Struggle). They flee because they don’t want to be "Burmanised" and “Buddhicised.”
What happens when a refugee becomes sick or is among the 5% (!) who are injured at work? One refugee who was treated for a broken leg said that when the hospital discovered he couldn’t pay, they removed the pins they had put in.
Muslim refugees experience higher rates of emotional distress. This is probably because they are excluded from resettlement: they were supposed to be integrated into Malaysian society, but this has not happened and seems unlikely.
The report reveals much more, eg the cramped and dangerous places the refugees live in; the problems of youth and children; how they organise to help themselves; how they avoid detention by the authorities (some police have learned to say “give me money” in
Burmese); their average income; their passion for sending money home; Malaysian and other groups who seek to help them, etc.
I encourage you to read the full report – and the Messiah’s story of the Good Samaritan.
Inhumanity is everywhere. But there are also those who respond humanely.