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Forced labour in Malaysia

Imagine coming home one day and finding out that your brother has been taken away to do forced labour. You don't know when you will see him again, and you can't go to the authorities for help - because they are the ones who took him away. You suspect they will come for you next, so you take what you can on you back, in a suitcase, and leave your country - not knowing when you can come back.
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.

Myanmar - different reality

The outside world makes the mistake of assuming that the junta is amenable to negotiation on what we regard as common values: democracy, respect for human rights, protection from the arbitrary exercise of power. This is simply not the case.

Ne Win, Burma's dictator from 1962 to 1988, had blind faith in '9' as his lucky number... The hardline suppression of the latest protests began on the same date as the 1988 crackdown, with the added bonus of a third '9': 18/9/2007 (2+7= 9).

It is unlikely that UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari's programme included consultations with the junta's astrologers, and yet these are the people who hold the key to the leader's strategy. (Article by Tom White, "UK's cultural attaché in Burma during the 1988 protests")

Frightening, but it makes sense to me. Something I realised, is that the army in Burma has been in power since 1962 - forty-five years. This means that by now the army has become a generational inheritance - those in the army now were most likely born with their father planning on them following in his path. In Burma, the army also controls much of the economy so it's a viable career that combines political and financial security.

So by now, there are the basics of a caste: hereditary social and economic position, likelihood of in-marrying (I'm guessing), and an ideology to support it (by all accounts, a mishmash of nationalism and pseudo-feudalism). Also, apparently there was a tradition of "pagoda slaves" in Burma and Thailand. This could perhaps give the army an ideological basis for their use of forced labour which is apparently quite common.

in the final stages of the 41-day uprising in 1988, democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi privately admitted that a split in the army seemed the only remaining hope of overthrowing the dictatorship.

Also, very interesting to read, is this eyewitness account by "A Buddhism student" (BBC). Some quotes:

Those who took part were from the younger generation of monks, who hadn't experienced the events of 1988 and thought that they couldn't be attacked.

The older monks were too frightened and hesitant. Those who had responsible positions in the monastery were particularly against anybody taking part in protests.

They issued orders to other monks not to take part. They were saying 'don't do anything, if you leave, you will be disassociated'.

The middle-level monks were sandwiched between the senior monks and the young ones. Many sneaked in and out.

The whole thing started as a religious movement. It was not an organised democratic movement and there was no intention whatsoever for it to be turned into one. Monks were adamant about it.

They knew that there is no point in asking the generals for freedom. They knew that they don't have guns and can't beat the army. All they wanted to do was show the world what their situation is and that they are prepared to die.

They were very hopeful about the UN envoy coming to Burma. But they were quite surprised to hear that he met Aung San Suu Kyi.

They love and respect her, but they felt that this time it is about them and that the UN envoy should be speaking to them. They felt that it's a distraction from them while they are being shot at and need protection.

This is important I think: the first quote at the top of this post, and the one about the UN meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, point to one thing: the deficiencies of an ethnocentric approach to negotiating with the Burmese regime. I wonder if the UN envoy actually tried to meet the monks; maybe he did. Maybe the regime allow him to see Aung San Suu Kyi because ultimately they know that she has less power than the monks.

Rats in their hole...

Well, following on from the previous post, here's what the BBC says regarding the motivations of the Burmese dictators:

In Burma, complete isolation means the generals have little to lose from international sanctions. Nor is there a large and powerful middle class with a lot to lose. There is only the military - the most powerful institution in the country - with its fingers in every aspect of daily life.

It suffers little from isolation, except in the increasingly narrow view of its officers.

Soldiers are taught that they are an elite class, entitled to special respect - and that anyone who opposes them is an enemy bent on returning the country to chaos and civil war.

That will almost certainly be the warped instruction given now to the troops who have shot at unarmed monks and civilians in Rangoon. (BBC News)

The Burmese protestors will never be able to beat the army at their own murderous game, so the only solution is satyagraha. Which means extreme courage and many more dead...

Or someone go in there and make a deal with some generals - appeal to their sense of self importance and greed...

A rat in a corner…

…is always the most dangerous.

Pondering the recent events in Burma, I have suddenly realised why sometimes it’s better to arrange for some kind of get out route for nasty dictators – rather than letting them fight till the end and get their just rewards.

By all accounts the people in power in Burma are despicable, and deep in their hearts they must know how unpopular they are: though by moving the capital 400 km inland, away from the historic capital, they may have been exteriorising their internal shift to self-delusion.

"The ruling generals say a seven-step roadmap to democracy is moving forward, though they are still at step one. No one knows when the new parliament building could be occupied." Source.

But just put yourself in their shoes: they know that if their enemies take power, they will most likely whack them in jail for corruption, human-rights abuse, etc. – at best – and at worst they will get strung up. Which is what they would do in that situation.

At moments like this, when there are thousands of people brave enough to stand up to the government – when people manage to put aside their individual fear of being hurt, and put their faith in the crowd – the oppressive regime knows that it’s a fight to the finish. Crush them, or they’ll crush you. So, unfortunately, as eye-witnesses recount today – it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. I fear a repeat of the thousands killed in 1988 - it's so despairingly disgusting when you think of it...

What could one do?
• Scare the regime leaders into scarpering. This will only happen at the last possible moment, and it will take a lot to get there.
• Find allies in the regime, and promise them leniency if they go turncoat. This is the most common I think – sometimes it’s as simple as soldiers or police refusing to carry out the dirty work of the regime, and the effects knock on up the ranks. In Burma, it is the army that holds power, so this is less likely – so it is by approaching some major generals that one might get them to switch sides.
• Give the leaders a way out. Tell them – leave now and we’ll not punish you. This has happened often enough, it stinks but often is the best way to avoid a massacre.

In any case: I stand in awe of those people who dare to stand up to the brutal regime and risk torture and death. Let's put our trust in the goodness of humanity, and hope to see peace and dignity restored to the Burmese.