The army committed human rights violations in connection with oil, gas, mining and hydropower development projects, including forced labour, killings, beatings and land confiscation. (Amnesty International 2011 Annual Report)
Imagine the police visiting the house of parents, who are soon to be 60 and looking forward to a quiet retirement. They tell them that their son has been involved with an NGO, and they believe that he is working with an ethnic independence organisation. They say: 'We will come back here tomorrow, and we want to see him here. If not…' - the threat is clear although unspoken. That night, the parents and the son take what they can on their back and leave to the next country.
The government continued to repress ethnic minorities protesting in relation to the elections as well as those who peacefully opposed the impact of development and infrastructure projects on the environment. Authorities also persecuted ethnic minorities for their real or suspected support of armed groups. (Amnesty International 2011 Annual Report)
All this has happened, and is happening, in Burma (aka Myanmar). Many refugees from there have come to Malaysia - there are more than 90,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, most of whom are from Burma.
Unfortunately for them, Malaysia does not recognise them as refugees, and this means that - amongst other things - they are not allowed to work legally. Because of this, in a bitter irony, many of them find themselves in forced labour right here in Malaysia. They cannot go home and they have to survive, so they take whatever job they can find. Often, unscrupulous and immoral employers exploit them as much as is humanly possible - denying them their full wage, locking them up, and threatening them with denunciation to the police (even though they themselves are doing something illegal by employing them).
The next time you get served by a waiter from Burma - think of this:
San (32), an ethnic Burmese asylum seeker, recalled how he was once confined by agents who promised him a job at the hotel. "He kept me at a house with other people from Burma and Indonesia, including 3 women. We were locked in when they went out. The agent said he would give me a job if available. There were three guards in the agent's house." Workers are usually shuttled back and forth from the restaurant to their living quarters. John is housed in a place he refers to as a "hostel," where he is not allowed visitors. He has to share a small room with five other people. (Witness accounts: Forced labour in the Malaysian service industry)
Or imagine how Min managed to keep his sanity when he was 'sold' for RM1,000 (note: an iPhone costs at least RM1,990) to a plantation owner by a restaurant owner who thought he wasn't "presentable" enough to work in the restaurant. He worked - with no pay - for a year, so that he could 'pay back' the money he was 'bought' with:
Min worked 11 hours a day, even when it rained. He was given only two meals every day, usually only rice and leftover vegetables from the plantation. "The boss gave me a container for me to collect rainwater for bath and other purposes." His main job was to spray insecticide, but he was not given a facemask. He even had to use clothes left by previous workers because the boss refused to "spend more money" on him.
Min said that the experience was really hard for him. "At that time, I couldn't even see myself as a human. The situation really drove me crazy and I felt like I wanted to die." It was also during this time that he heard about the deaths of his mother and younger sister. "There was no one for me to speak to. The pain I felt was unspeakable." (Witness accounts: Forced labour in Malaysian plantations)
Unfortunately, there are many more examples like this. In a recent survey, "61% of refugees and asylum seekers who had worked full-time in Malaysia had experienced forced labor." (See the video below.)
You can't change the world, nor help every refugee and asylum seeker out there, but you can make your voice and indignation heard. Ask the Malaysian government to recognise refugees and asylum seekers as humans who deserve the opportunity to live with dignity, free from exploitation and fear.