Malaysia must aim high in fight against trafficking
According to the Malaysian Director of Internal Security and Public Order, there is only one mass grave in the quiet settlement of Wang Kelian, Perlis, Malaysia although a few more have been uncovered across the Thai border. Still, it came as a shock to Malaysians when that one grave had 139 bodies.
We hope he’s right. We hope the police have carried out an extensive search of the area and made sure that human traffickers have not dumped more bodies of Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants elsewhere.
The villagers in Wang Kelian reported seeing these migrants coming down from the hills and the surrounding jungle areas, looking for food and appearing so disoriented that they were not even sure if they were in Malaysia.
Some of them were later picked up by traffickers and disappeared. Now we know what their likely fate was.
The rest of us are stunned to find out that in Malaysia, people can be killed and buried in large numbers without the authorities knowing about it.
Whenever you fly on Malaysia’s national airline, one of the announcements made on board is that Malaysia takes a serious view of human trafficking and that punishments for such offenses are severe.
It was always soothing to hear such reminders of our Malaysia’s moral stand, and it has been equally devastating to Malaysians to realize how badly they have failed to uphold it.
The revelations that these traffickers built virtual slave camps in Malaysia, and that hundreds of desperate migrants who were forced to live there ended up dismembered in these mass graves, have indeed been a shocking development for Malaysia.
‘A rude awakening’
But if it has been a rude awakening for them to realize what has been going on in our own backyard, what words can be used to describe the situation of the Rohingyas, who have been rendered stateless after their own Myanmar government denied them recognition?
There are more than 1.5 million Rohingyas, who are Muslims, and they live in perpetual fear of being persecuted or killed by their Buddhist countrymen.
When ASEAN accepted Myanmar as a member state in 1997, some nongovernmental organizations suggested that the association impose humanitarian conditions on Myanmar’s inclusion, including the Myanmar government’s dealings with their Rohingya citizens.
Unfortunately, ASEAN did not pay heed to this suggestion and this has certainly contributed to the tragedy we see today.
Although the United Nations recognized the Rohingyas as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, very little has been done to alleviate their suffering. Many of them have settled in Malaysia since the 1970s, especially in Johor and Selangor, although they came in much smaller numbers then.
When I was chair of the Myanmar Caucus for ASEAN Parliamentarians in 2006, I had the opportunity to meet some of their representatives, who expected me to do something to address their problems.
Many of them worked in miserable working conditions, but they were still grateful for the chance to earn enough of an income to feed their family and even send some money home.
At that time, they wanted the government to allow their children to go to school and to provide some form of identification papers, so they would not be harassed by authorities taking advantage of their condition.
Although it would be correct to say that the Rohingya problem is not ours alone to solve and that the international community must also play its role, it’s important to remember that in this part of the world there are only two large Muslim countries: Malaysia and Indonesia.
If Malaysians and the Indonesians do not help these people, who else will?
Malays make much of our determination to be good Muslims, and although another person’s faith should not shape our decision to help them, it does seem particularly indefensible that we are unwilling to help our Muslim brothers and sisters, especially when they are in such dire need.
They flee their homes and cross the oceans on rickety boats to get here. Many die along the way, reportedly under horrific conditions. Even women and children are not spared.
Those who eventually float to our shores are desperate, hungry and abandoned twice over: once by their own government, and again by the traffickers who promised to take them to safety.
‘More than economic opportunity’
They are looking for more than just economic opportunity: they are looking for asylum, for safety, for a chance to survive. Booted out of their homes by their own country, they literally have nowhere to go.
If their stories do not move us to do something, then nothing will. I hope our much- touted Malaysian Syariah Index will force us to offer reasonable assistance to our fellow Muslims, even if they are Rohingyas.
It’s also important to remember that in its recent annual Trafficking in Persons Report, the United States State Department issued a damning statement on the Malaysian government’s poor efforts in fighting modern slavery.
The report noted that there was ample evidence of forced labor and sex trafficking in the country, so it relegated us to Tier 3, the lowest ranking, alongside countries such as North Korea, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia.
Like it or not, as a trading nation Malaysia cannot afford to disregard what the U.S. thinks of us, or the possibility of the United States Congress imposing trade restrictions on Malaysia if we do not do enough to address human trafficking.
I urge the foreign and home affairs ministries to act quickly. They should establish a Special Working Group to deal with the influx of Rohingyas and develop solutions that go beyond just providing them with interim relief and shelter.
These solutions must also include strategies to stamp out the human traffickers that have infiltrated Malaysia.
Let’s see some arrests and successful prosecutions of these criminals, and outline the specific action that’s needed to monitor our border areas.
The war on drugs could not be won by arresting young addicts but by targeting the suppliers and syndicate leaders. Similarly, human slavery and trafficking will only be overcome when the syndicate leaders are put in jail.
Only when we do this can we once again claim to be serious about dealing with human trafficking.