Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) is extremely saddened by the heart-wrenching discovery of a mass grave of some 100 Rohingya in Perlis. We hope that the Malaysian government will now treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves and ensure an impartial and independent investigation is conducted. We note that there have been reports relating to the existence of such camps and holding houses in Malaysia for some time; we would urge the impartial and independent investigation to include the question of why apparently so little was done to act on these reports until now.
Nor should we let the appalling discovery of mass graves to allow us to forget what is happening to the people on the boats at sea. We appeal to the government to lead the ASEAN community in ensuring the success of the rescue mission of the thousands of women, men and children who remain drifting at sea. We wonder if this is happening. There has been no update from anyone in our government relating to the number of boats located, the number of people reached with urgent provisions and medical supplies, and the number of boats escorted to a position of safety. This is of extreme worry. We welcomed the search and rescue order made by the Prime Minister on 21st May, an order made not before time given the potential scale of this human catastrophe, but five days have gone by with no news. Are we just allowing the people on the boats to drift and die?
The situation of the women, men and children at sea, the discovery of mass graves, the discussions about root causes and responsibilities of governments, must serve as emphatic reminders to the Malaysian government and the whole ASEAN community of the pressing need to address the inter-connected issues of human trafficking, persecution, modern day slavery, migration and protection issues in the country and region. It is almost unthinkable that at this time when it stands so condemned by ASEAN and the international community, that the Myanmar government dare propose their Population Act, a hugely crude attempt to limit certain populations through criminalising unsanctioned births and which many point out will likely target Rohingya women first and foremost. This gross abuse of human rights adds to the history of abuses perpetrated by the Myanmar government against certain of its minorities. It simply affirms the utterly urgent need for initiatives to be taken at ASEAN and international level to bring the Myanmar government to account and to demand for an immediate end to its discriminatory policies and inhumane treatment towards Rohingya in particular. The collective and imminent imposition of penalties should be high in consideration, as well as suspension and possible expulsion from ASEAN. It is time we said ‘enough’.
With regard to trafficking and modern day slavery, the discovery of the graves emphasises something we have to address. Migrant and refugee survivors of the camps and of other places of detention (and those with relatives or friends who have experienced/suffered/died in such camps) have passed information to the authorities and different groups over a long time. Foreign media like Reuters and major reports from international and regional groups have narrated this. Yet only now are we ‘shocked’ to discover they exist. If we are serious about tackling human trafficking and the related activities of the criminal syndicates operating in the region, we have to be much better at protecting and including the very people whom the criminal syndicates target, induce, abduct, torture, rape, kill, and sell. The lack of respect and the lack of protection we give to migrants and refugees/asylum seekers is a huge part of the problem. The discovery of the mass graves is nothing more than a stark reminder of the failure of governments in the region to produce any significant measurements to protect such people. Instead more often than not we treat them as ‘the problem’. This has to stop; protecting them and including them is an essential part of the solution. Conversely, to protect our own sovereignty and territorial integrity, it is the criminal syndicates that operate with such impunity that must be labelled ‘the problem’. They are the ones breaking our laws and our borders, undermining our efficacy and corrupting our economy and institutions. So we need to give far better protection to those most vulnerable, through signing relevant international Conventions and protocols (for example, the UN Convention on Refugees) and through offering far greater protection (including a right to redress) to migrant workers. We need to listen to their stories and take their evidence if we are serious in identifying and arresting the human traffickers and their syndicates. And we need to commit to a serious, comprehensive and well resourced plan of action to tackle human trafficking and associated crime and arrest those who are the problem: the criminals.
The Malaysian government has a unique chance to lead on this. As the chair of ASEAN and member of the United Nations Security Council, it has the obligation and responsibility to stop the killings, trafficking and inhumane exploitation of human lives, and to identify and arrest the criminals whoever they might be.
And it needs to update us about the fate of the women, men and children on the boats.