Sunday, December 19, 2010

Malaysia struggles to meet refugee needs: rights report

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – The government of Malaysia remains delinquent in meeting the needs of refugees seeking greener pastures, including Burmese, finds the latest study on the status of refugee needs in the Southeast Asian state.

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), or Voice of the Malaysian People, a Malaysian civil and political rights group, in its 2010 overview chastises Kuala Lumpur for failing to do enough to satisfy the rights of those either seeking temporary or permanent asylum in the country or victims of human trafficking.

“Although the government appears to have the intention of seeking ways to deal with this population [refugees], violations of refugee rights continue to occur,” the report’s authors concluded. 

Thousands of Burmese are among the over 90,000 refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

On June 12 of 2010, according to the report, Suaram “was informed that an estimated 500 Burmese detainees at Lenggeng Immigration Detention Centre [southeast of Kuala Lumpur in the state of Negeri Simbalan] went on hunger strike … to protest against the lack of water supply which had been going on for five days. However, it was reported that the Immigration Department denied that there was a lack of water supply at the detention centre”.

The incident followed a February occurrence at the same location over which the Burmese leader of a hunger strike was detained for seven months, though the UNHCR was able to visit the centre shortly after the onset of the protest, securing the release of 106 refugees.

In January this year, 26 Burmese asylum-seekers were arrested by Malaysian authorities upon trying to enter the country, allegedly being denied their basic rights as asylum-seekers in proceeding developments.

Suaram believes the behaviour of the Malaysian authorities is consistent with Kuala Lumpur exhibiting little interest in ratifying the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, or introducing domestic legislation to recognise the status of refugees.

“Due to the lack of legal status, refugees continue to face denial of basic rights,” continues the rights’ group’s assessment.

Moreover, as of this year, the trafficking of Burmese refugees by Malaysian immigration officers was reportedly still occurring, while in March four Burmese destined for Australia were discovered at Kuala Lumpur International Airport as part of a human-trafficking scheme, the report said.

Suaram said the trafficking victims were then subjected to detention centres in violation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2007, which stipulates such individuals be placed in shelters as opposed to detention centres.

Overall, the report finds that despite the optimism surrounding the advent of the Malaysian government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, which observers had hoped would place greater emphasis on the realisation of human rights when he took office in April last year, “all the incidents and controversies that have happened in 2010 signal a return to the Mahathir era, a period of stifling control, abuse of powers and suppression of human rights”.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and remains a complex political character, including in developments related to social and civil rights.

Suaram also contends the Malaysian Election Commission has thus far refused to take issue with allegations of illegal electoral conduct by Najib’s ruling party, which opponents say has offered preferential treatment in return for voter favouritism, especially during May’s by-elections in the region of Sibu. 

In Burma’s national elections last month, the junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party was widely accused of using similar illegal electoral tactics to sway voter allegiance.

Meanwhile, in another apparent signal of abuse of power by the Najib government, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and three allies were suspended from parliament for six months yesterday, in votes that triggered pandemonium and an opposition walkout, the Australian broadcaster ABC News reported online.

“Anwar, who is also facing trial on sodomy charges that he says are a political conspiracy, was this week found guilty by parliament of misleading members in a row over a national unity slogan,” the ABC reported.

The suspension came after he had criticised the Najib government’s One Malaysia banner aimed at promoting unity in the multiracial nation, saying it had been taken from the 1999 One Israel political bloc of former Israeli leader Ehud Barak, the report said.

The charge is highly sensitive in the predominately Muslim country, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel and supports a Palestinian state.

The government on Wednesday also cited three senior opposition MPs for contempt for criticising the parliamentary disciplinary probe against Anwar, and demanded that they also serve six-month suspensions.

“It’s so clear, it’s blatantly biased,” Anwar told ABC after the vote in the Malaysian Parliament, where Najib’s ruling coalition has a clear majority. “It’s a mockery of the entire proceedings.”

Chaotic scenes filled the house where debate was drowned out by 30 minutes of shouting, and opposition lawmakers displayed signs reading “Save the Parliament” and “Rule of kangaroo”.

They later walked out, chanting “shame on you”, the report said.

Anwar was once a deputy prime minister to Mahathir in the ruling coalition but his attacks against alleged culture of nepotism and cronyism within the ruling UMNO party and the ruling coalition as a whole angered his former mentor. He was sacked and jailed a decade ago on separate sodomy and corruption charges, widely seen as politically motivated.