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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

By Colin Boyd Shafer

APRIL 6 — I recently returned from Myanmar.

A group of women at a market in Bagan.
 In a word, it was beautiful. No McDonalds or ATMs, few mobiles and televisions, many pagodas and temples.
The people are welcoming — more so than any country I’ve been to. At a glance, it is not the failed state as portrayed in the media. What’s truly sad though, is the undeniable truth of how oppressed the people of this nation are. Despite its beauty and charm, I understand why people would want to escape.
Business appears to be booming. Lorries transport vast amounts of lumber. Workers break apart countless rocks. Planters tend to crops of eucalyptus. However, the profits do not reach the people.
A few individuals fortunate enough to be connected to the military junta benefit while the average citizen slaves away under the hot sun. The fruits of their labour are marked for export, mostly to China.
Of the few hundred dollars I spent, a generous portion went to the government in the form of taxes and various fees. Obviously I would want more for my family if I was earning an average of RM4,500 a year.
During the last 40 years of military rule, the people have tried to make the country their own. An uprising in 1988 left about 10,000 dead. Popular pro-democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has endured decades of house arrest. In 2007, the promise of the “Saffron Revolution,” a revolt led by monks over high fuel prices, was met with a military crackdown that left an unknown number killed or detained.  However, the average-informed reader knows all this.
What Malaysians need to realize is its connection to Myanmar. I am not simply talking about the fact that as Asean countries, Malaysia supports the military junta on a daily basis through trade and strategically-placed omissions.
I am thinking about the 50,000 Burmese workers in Malaysia (Myanmar Times, 2005).  I am thinking about the over 50,000 Burmese refugees in the country. These are not people who seek to take advantage of Malaysia, but truly fear for their lives. Far from finding peace here, the nightmare only continues.
Malaysia has not ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. In other words, a refugee is treated no better than an illegal immigrant. Few know this fact better than Burmese refugees.
The Annexe Gallery in KL hosted the works of five documentary photographers last October showcasing the plight of the Burmese in Malaysia. This event titled “No Refuge” displayed photographically exactly what nobody “wants” to see.
These people are struggling, and very few people seem to want to help. As reported by SUARAM, many refugees living in Malaysia are repeatedly harassed by RELA (volunteer police force) and once caught, they are often abused, extorted for money, or sent to overcrowded and unhygienic detention centers.
Sometimes they are even sold to human traffickers as slave labour or prostitutes. People who lack rights are the most vulnerable. According to Elaine Pearson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia, Burmese refugees are being “abused by the Malaysian government officials and human traffickers.”
Journalist Karen Zusman, has put together a video project called “Please Don’t Say my Name” made of interviews and personal accounts documenting the fear these refugees have living in Malaysia.
I had the opportunity to visit one privately-run school for Burmese refugees in Kuala Lumpur.  Providing schools for these children is a necessity. If these new residents do not obtain a “good” basic education, they will surely be a burden on society. According to Amnesty International Malaysia, Malaysia is also formally obliged to care for refugee children as it is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Another problem is that refugees cannot find legal work here. One group of Karen women (one of the many ethnic groups of Myanmar) I met was selling their handicrafts at a local gallery in KL. No other forms of employment are available, so this is the best they can legally get.
Volunteers had organised a co-operative to help these women become self-sufficient. Sadly many women who are not given such opportunities end up being illegally trafficked along with their children. Whether you are considering this from an economic standpoint or a humanitarian standpoint, education and jobs are needed for the Burmese in Malaysians.
Malaysia has its fair share of people who legitimately need help. However, let’s not ignore our responsibility and commitment to the rights and humanitarian needs of thousands of refugees who have fled from human rights violations and persecution in Myanmar seeking protection right here in Malaysia.
The on-going plight of refugees in Malaysia may not be headline news, but it still deserves our attention and action. Whether you are inspired by your faith or by your logic, we the “fortunate” need to lend a helping hand to those born into unlucky circumstances.  It begins by simply recognising that everyone living here shares in society, for better or for worse.  To paraphrase a popular observation, a society will be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable members.


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