Saturday, January 20, 2007

Rela and Malaysia's invisible war (ALIRAN)

Rela and Malaysia's invisible war

Wednesday, 24 January 2007 (ALIRAN 2006:9)
relaThe volunteer corps' crackdown on undocumented foreigners is not a war on terror; it is a war on defenceless migrants, observes Romany.

Like George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’ waged by the United States, an unseen, little-publicised ‘war on undocumented immigrants’ is being waged in Malaysia. This war, waged under cover of darkness, is hidden from public view and much information about it lands in the dead-news boxes of the editors of mainstream newspapers.

What exactly does the public know about these ongoing crackdowns on the migrant and refugee communities in our country? Who are these refugees and migrant workers? It is too easy to believe in our home grown xenophobic views of foreign people we actually know nothing about, given the kind of information the mainstream media dish out. Do we know or care about the reasons for their presence? We fail to ask the relevant and pertinent question – why are they here?

Home Affairs Minister Radzi Sheikh Ahmad exhibited this indifference to the little understood plight of these people, in his call to undocumented immigrants to “return home the way they came and not come back”; just before the Deepa-Raya festivities and prior to next year’s “major nationwide crackdown” (The Star, 14 Oct 2006).

The Minister’s said, “I am sure if they know how to enter the country they will definitely know the way out.” In making such a dismissive statement, the Minister did not seem to realise the apparent extent of his ignorance concerning the root causes of mass migration to this country, nor was he admitting his ignorance.

The Malaysian government criminalises undocumented immigrants without justification apart from legally categorising them as “illegal immigrants” because they lack legally recognised documentation to define their immigration status. According to the Minister, the Immigration authorities have a biometric self-identification system, which identifies “illegal immigrants” whose thumbprints are taken when they are arrested. It seems that they are not given any second chance even if they return again with legally valid documentation after being deported the first time. Is this just?

Malaysians often grumble about the long wait and the high fees paid - apart from having to meet other requirements like having guarantors or sponsors to ensure they meet particular financial requirements - before getting a visa to study or to stay longer than what a tourist visa allows in a foreign country. Obtaining work permits for employment in foreign countries is also plagued with much bureaucracy, long waits and costs incurred in the preparation of documents for official processing and approval of the host country’s government.

What if the tables were reversed? What if the economic situation in Malaysia was so bad that about 50-70 per cent of us were almost permanently unemployed and if there was political instability in the country and a majority of us lived below subsistence level - what would we do? Could we afford the high fees in sterling pounds, Australian dollars, US dollars or New Zealand dollars to pay foreign embassy immigration departments to get a visa to migrate? Could we give any guarantees of our financial security having no such sponsors or guarantors willing to put up the money to enable approval of our visa application? What if we were in a desperate situation without any means of livelihood and were forced to join the long immigration queue, waiting for months or years? Many of us would have no choice but to seek greener pastures but we would find no way out. We would be in the same boat as these “boat people”.

Not only do we remain unmoved by such difficulties experienced by others but we also seem to be encouraged by our limited and blinkered views of the world around us. We sneer at the political upheaval and turmoil in neighbouring Asean countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Burma but fail to understand why there is such political instability. Violent repression of people seeking basic human rights in these countries is of no concern to us. These victims, fleeing from political repression and poverty to our shores in the hope of finding temporary safety and perhaps a better life, are treated like criminals and subjected to further ill-treatment and violation of their basic human rights.

Hunted, hounded, harassed and detained

While most Malaysians are sleeping peacefully in the wee hours of the morning, it is a time of terror for the migrants. It does not matter if they are documented or undocumented migrants. These are the dark hours of fear and terror of raids conducted by Rela (the People’s Volunteer Corps). Reports of these night raids read like horror stories, about human beings brutalised and humiliated, robbed, dragged out of their beds, forced into trucks that take them away to certain detention centres, of which the general public know very little about. Is this something fabricated to sensationalise the predicament faced by this marginalized community? No, this is reality.

In their memorandum to Suhakam, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) provided details of raids carried out by Rela earlier this year.

At midnight on 11 February 2006, Rela carried out a raid on foreign workers in the Selayang open market. “According to eye-witnesses, those migrant workers caught were beaten up by the Rela personnel and treated like cattle.” Citing a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report, the memo continued: “...five died while fleeing the raid. Five bodies were found in a small lake near the open market in Selayang Baru.” Further, “Kuala Lumpur Hospital confirmed that four bodies had been taken from the lake in Selayang while another body...was said to be buried quickly.”

It is strange that after such a serious incident involving loss of life, the Immigration authorities and the government remained silent. The mainstream media were hushed, as if ignorant of what happened, except for theSun. A few days after the event, this daily published a small article on a report written by Ong Ju Lin, who had researched the case of one of the deceased foreign workers whose body had been dredged out of the lake. It was found that this particular individual was also a refugee. No inquiry by the government into the circumstances of this raid was made nor was any public statement on it forthcoming.

The siege on migrants by Rela has been going on. A day after the Selayang market raid, another raid took place in Shah Alam, the casualties of this raid were legitimate technicians and contract workers in a factory. They were “slapped, kicked and punched” and humiliated by Rela personnel without reason.

On 28 February, 61 Indian nationals, cheated and left in the lurch, penniless, by an unscrupulous employment agent, and reduced to sitting and waiting for assistance outside their embassy for a number of days, were also assaulted by Rela. Some of them were badly injured in the attack; but were not been given medical treatment. They were detained, unjustifiably.

Another raid on 13 May in Selayang market and Seri Kembangan at around 2.45 am, involving around 1,000 Rela personnel unaccompanied by police or immigration officers, was carried out in an “indecent and brutal manner”, according to Suaram.

In July, Rela conducted a raid on a refugee settlement in Putrajaya. The Achenese refugees were rudely awakened at 3.00 am and herded into lorries by Rela personnel. They were handcuffed with zip-ties and taken a distance to a partly constructed building in Sungai Merab. They were searched and nine of them detained because they did not have UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) cards on them. At 6.30 am, those not detained were sent back to the settlement to find Rela personnel carting away all their belongings after setting their houses on fire. They were left with nothing but “the clothes on their backs”. What was the reason for this inhumanity? None has been given by Rela or the government.

Raids have been more intensified this month (October) and will probably accelerate towards the end of the year into 2007. It was reported on 5 October that 2,000 residents in Jalan Imbi, Kuala Lumpur were “ordered out of their homes” at 3.00 am by Rela (See accompanying story). Amongst them were Chin, Burmese and Karen migrants, who have been detained at the Lenggeng detention centre. They allegedly did not have UNHCR papers, which implies the possibility of their being refugees. There were also detainees of other nationalities: Nepalese, Bangladeshis and Indonesians.

Three more raids are known to have been carried out so far, two in Selangor and one in Penang. All invariably with violence, destruction of property and commission of theft, discovered after the raids by Rela. Pregnant women and children including babies are not spared in the raids and ill-treatment, lack of proper medical attention or degrading conditions in detention centres common features.

Rela, govt-backed vigilantes

On 5 August 2006, The Star reported that Rela was to undergo a “rebranding exercise”. Home Affairs Minister Mohd. Radzi Ahmad said this was necessary as “many people were still in the dark about the movement’s role.” At this ceremony, the Minister conferred the Selangor Menteri Besar and State Assembly Speaker with the rank of honorary colonel and 53 Selangor state assembly members with the rank of lieutenant-colonel of Rela.

This voluntary force was set up by the government on 11 January 1972 under the Emergency (Essential Powers) Act 1964. According to Home Affairs Ministry information, Rela’s establishment was based on the philosophy that the “responsibility of defending the country is in the hands of its own citizens with all citizens playing their respective roles.” Its mission: “To mobilise a voluntary force to assist the security agencies in the maintenance of peace and security in the country.” Its objective: “To help maintain security in the country and the well-being of its people.”

Given that Rela was established by virtue of the government’s emergency powers, the question arises as to why Rela is activated now. Is Malaysia in a state of emergency?

The growing militarisation of our country is increasingly noticeable. Malaysia seems to be turning into a police state. The last time Malaysia was deemed to be under an alleged state of emergency was in 1987 when Operation Lalang was launched by the then premier, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. During Operation Lalang, key NGO activists, members of religious groups and opposition party leaders were detained. None of these advocated armed insurrection in the country. Is Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi following in his predecessor’s footsteps by activating Rela, who are permitted to bear arms against unarmed migrants and civilians unable to defend themselves? What security threat as such does Malaysia face from economic migrants or refugees?

It is interesting to note that Khir Toyo, the Menteri Besar of Selangor, in his speech at the same event reported on 5 August said, “Rela would be able to function better if its members knew the law and the limits of their jurisdiction.” These words reveal the way in which Rela operates, disregarding the rule of law which should apply to every armed force and enforcement unit in the country as a deterrence against abuse of power and licence to use force, including the licence to kill.

Even more disturbing was Rela chief Khairi Mohd. Alwee’s statement in The Malay Mail on 19 October. Replying to complaints by residents of Taman Anggerik, Selangor that Rela members had broken their door locks and gates to gain entry to search their houses for undocumented immigrants at 5 am on 14 October, he said they had acted according to procedure.

He added, “Rela officers were authorised to enter and search premises without warrants and arrest and handcuff suspects.” Further, he confirmed, “ We are also authorised to carry firearms but we don’t flaunt it to avoid chaos.”

On 14 October, raids under Ops Tegas were carried out in other residential areas besides Taman Anggerik. These were Taman Sungai Sering, Bandar Alam Jaya, Taman Emas, Taman Orkid Phase 2, Taman Permai Jaya, Taman Pinggiran Delima and Bukit Raya.

The net of arbitrary search, arrest, detention and ensuing violence and invasion of privacy is becoming wider, more prevalent and indiscriminate.

Rela has become the government’s pet enforcement arm, being provided insurance cover, weapons, uniforms, status and a commission of RM80 per undocumented migrant (the bounty on the head of every alleged undocumented migrant they capture). In contrast, the government appears to be distancing itself from conventional enforcement units like the police by refusing to permit them a salary increase to cope with rising living costs, thus aggravating corruption within the force. Rela members apparently outnumber the police as well as the armed forces, numbering over 340,000 in contrast to less than 200,000 law enforcement and armed forces personnel put together, nationwide.

The peril within

Due to the shortage of labour within the country and the demand for low-wage labour, the government, in agreement with other Asean governments, maintains policies encouraging mobility of labour within Asean. Yet, Malaysia remains ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with the problems of mass migration. As usual, there has been no foresight, planning or structured approach to problems arising, and no realisation of the advantages of having readily available human resources to spur the economic development and progress of the country.

Instead, our government resorts to heavy-handed tactics and militarisation of the country. This is further worsened by the resulting human rights violations of migrants and citizens. The curtailment of freedom of information and expression, corruption, detention without trial, torture and other abuses in police lockups and immigration detention centres, the denial of prompt and proper medical treatment and more - the list is a long one.

Using Rela as a broom, with uncontrolled and unlimited powers, to sweep problems under the carpet in this inappropriate way only endangers Malaysia itself. Rela has also forsaken its objective to maintain security in the country and to ensure the well-being of its people. This is not a war on terror; it is a war on defenceless migrants and citizens of our country.

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