While waiting for a faint chance for resettlement in third countries, Burmese refugee couple U Maung Hla and Moe Moe Khing decided to help improve the conditions of refugees in Malaysia by providing shelter, assistance and education for those in need.
The duo are striving to break the ethnic barriers which have existed among the Burmese for over 60 years, a “legacy” of the British colonial government's divide-and-rule strategy.
NONE“The racial sentiments have lingered ever since the first batch of refugees set foot in Malaysia,” said Moe, who is also women's affairs coordinator for the Burma Refugee Organisation (BRO).
She said mixed-marriage couples risk being shunned by both communities.
“A few organisations have been set up by each ethnic group, but they only to help their own kind, and that's why we set up BRO five years ago,” she said after the official launching of BRO's new school yesterday. The date of the school's opening was chosen to commemorate Burma's independence day on Jan 4, 1948.
Moe said although there are 58 schools for the Burmese community in the country, BRO's school is the first to take in children regardless of their race and religion.
NONEThe BRO school was at first sited within the BRO's 400 square feet office, but is now settled in a shoplot in Pusat Bandar Puchong, which is four times bigger.
“Currently, the school teaches basic English and the Burmese language, as well as computer courses, for 68 children ranging from five to 15 years old. This is to prepare them for resettlement in English-speaking third countries,” she said.
The new school has five teachers and 15 workers, and also has 30 computers. Classes are conducted from 9am to 5pm on weekdays, while weekend classes are specially tailored for working students.
BRO has also rented another shoplot nearby as a hostel for students, workers and teachers. The hostel also houses homeless refugees.
'Only 40 percent getting an education'
She said currently there are some 10,000 Burmese refugee children in Malaysia, and believes that only 40 percent are getting an education while the rest were forced to quit school after their parents lost their jobs.
NONEAccording to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 90,800 registered refugees in Malaysia, with 90 percent of these being Burmese.
Moe said the refugees wanted to be recognised as well as treated fairly, adding that she believes the refugees have no intention of seeking permanent resident status in Malaysia. “We regard Malaysia as a stepping stone to third countries,” she said, adding however that only 20 percent of refugees had been successfully relocated to third countries.
NONEShe urged the Malaysian government to close down the 13 refugee detention camps in the country. Moe said the refugees would return to their homeland only when Burma was safe and peaceful.
Asked whether the the military government's release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was a sign they could return home, she dismissed the move, saying the military government could be lying and later rearrest Suu Kyi.
“In the meantime, the Burmese should stay united. Life is not easy here as 40 percent of Burmese workers are unable to get their full salary,” she added.
NONEMoe, 49, is ethnic Shan, while her husband is Burmese. Both fled to Malaysia seven years ago.
BRO president U Maung Hla said the organisation helps the refugees in health, security and development matters.
U Maung, 59, has been arrested three times in Malaysia for illegal assembly and was jailed for six to nine months over an incident in which he and a group of refugees had gathered at the Burmese embassy in Kuala Lumpur to demand the release of Suu Kyi.