Malaysia to lead ASEAN in addressing the root cause of Rohingya issues

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) adds its voice to those urgently calling upon the Malaysian government, as the present Chair of ASEAN and member of the UN Security Council, to take a firm and decisive lead in rescuing the Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants stranded at sea in Southeast Asia. More importantly, Malaysia must set an example by leading the ASEAN community into addressing the root cause of this humanitarian catastrophe and to put together a framework that would end Myanmar’s abusive regime in denying and violating the rights of the Rohingya – without any delay.

The Rohingya 

Questions have arisen as to who are the Rohingya and why are they fleeing their own country? The simple answer to that is they don’t belong to a country. Or that they are not recognised by their own country.

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority who have been living in Arakan state in Myanmar for centuries. Many were brought across as workers from what was then neighbouring India by the British colonial administration between 1826 and 1948. They have their own language, and had their own representatives in early Burma parliaments. However, there have long been tensions in what is a majority-Buddhist Myanmar.  In 1982, the government introduced  the Burma Citizenship Law, under which the Rohingya were stripped of their citizenship.  The law further restricts their access to education, services, rights to property and liberties. Many live in internally displaced persons camps in the Rakhine state, where they are entirely dependent on international humanitarian aid, as reported by Human Rights Watch in 2014. They are effectively stateless. The persistent and awful violations against the Rohingya population have been well documented for over thirty years.

This systematic violence and harassment has forced thousands of Rohingya to flee, many to camps on the Bangladeshi border, and thousands of others are desperate to leave. The human traffickers and criminal syndicates then prey upon their vulnerability and desperation – by offering them a new hope and new land.

There is plenty of documentation from regional organisations and NGOS about how these Rohingya pay (extortionate rates) for a passage but for far too many, ‘smuggling’ becomes quickly ‘trafficked’ or ‘held for ransom’ and further extortion. The boats leaving Myanmar have become larger; the big syndicates apparently operate them with impunity; there are allegations that the Myanmar government are actively involved; there are allegations that the syndicates include people from key agencies and authorities for example in Thailand and on the Malaysian border.

As of end of February 2015, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) recorded a total of 45,170 Rohingya in Malaysia. Showing the desperation of the situation, the UN has qualified the Rohingya as one of the more persecuted populations of the world.

Refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia 

Malaysia is not party to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention which would legally bind the government to recognise and protect refugees and asylum seekers. Indeed, there is no administrative or legal framework at all relating to refugees or asylum seekers in this country. Instead the Malaysian government has ‘allowed’ asylum seekers and refugees to be in Malaysia, but has given responsibility for the assessment and processing of such people to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) on the implicit assumption that all will be resettled to a third country. But this is unrealistic and many refugees and asylum seekers have been here for years. And in many circumstance, including in the present situation, the Malaysian government labels refugees and asylum seekers as “illegal migrants”, the same category as economic migrants.

As previous SUARAM Reports and a plethora of other reports and articles have catalogued, the fact that refugees and asylum-seekers have no rights in Malaysia has led to a situation where they are live in a highly precarious environment, subject to arbitrary treatment by the authorities, forced to work as ‘undocumented workers’ with all the vulnerabilities this brings, and have no right to redress where things go wrong.

The Crisis

Boats filled with thousands of desperate, hungry and exhausted Rohingya and Bangladeshis have arrived in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia in the past weeks, and thousands more migrants are believed to be still stranded at sea after the human traffickers prompted their captains and smugglers to abandon the boats. This situation has unravelled because there has been a crackdown in Thailand, where previously traffickers would take the women, men and children in the boats to be held in camps, for further extortion, torture, rape and murder, as is evidenced be recent findings. Now the boats have ‘nowhere to go’ and of course the situation has been aggravated by the Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia governments pushing back the boats, putting thousands of lives at risk of imminent death.

There are no easy answers to this heart-wrenching mess. But turning the vulnerable away cold-heartedly when their lives are on the edge is not acceptable morally and arguably illegal under international maritime law. Further, it puts a damning image on the reputation of the Malaysian government, allowing the country to be ridiculed. As a matter of utter urgency, the boats still at sea need to be properly provisioned and people’s lives saved. The Malaysian Navy and Maritime are in the best position to do this, with thousands of Malaysians responding to the call for humanitarian help and ready to support such an initiative. Further, the Malaysian government must change their policy and allow the boats to land; not to do so is to condemn thousands of innocent women, men and children to die.

At the same time, it is clear that initiatives must also be taken also urgently at ASEAN and international level, to bring the Myanmar government to account and to tackle the pervasiveness of human trafficking and exploitation of people in the region. It is because of the actions and polices of the Myanmar government that ethnic minorities like the Rohingya are fleeing. A way has to be found to stop the Myanmar government from its horrific and persistent abuse of people. Unsurprisingly, the Myanmar government has refused to admit that it is the source of the problem. If ASEAN is genuinely seeking a solution, they should demand the Myanmar government to end the discriminatory policies and treatment towards to the Rohingya, recognise their inherent rights as human being, and ensure that the Rohingya can return safely, with full dignity back to their homes in Myanmar. Failing this, penalties should be imposed, including the potential for Myanmar to be suspended or ejected from ASEAN. The international community also has its part to play.

Further, the crisis calls for national governments and ASEAN as a collective to commit to a coherent, determined and properly resourced strategy to combat human trafficking. The fact that both Thailand and Malaysia have been categorised as Tier 3 (the lowest of all Tiers) by the US Trafficking in Persons Report 2014 indicates that these countries have ‘categorically failed to comply with the most basic international requirements to prevent trafficking and protect victims within its borders’.

Let us hope that the awfulness of the present situation – the discovery of horrific holding camps in Thailand (which were being reported for years but no action taken), the fate of the thousands of women, men and children on the boats – galvanises us into realising what is happening in our region, and the many things we have to do as a country and as a region to stop the killings, trafficking and ruthless exploitation of people. We have no time to waste.


Released by,


Serene Lim

Program Coordinator

Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)

Southeast Asia: ASEAN governments must end the clampdown on freedom of express

Joint statement by Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), Imparsial (Indonesia),
Cross Cultural Foundation (Thailand), Lawyers for Liberty (Malaysia), Vietnamese Overseas 

Initiative for Conscience Empowerment (VOICE) and Amnesty International

As the ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) is held this week in Malaysia in parallel to the ASEAN Summit of Heads of State, we call on governments across Southeast Asia to end the clampdown on freedom of expression and to halt the use of repressive laws to silence dissenting voices.

The human right to free expression and the related rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, thought, conscience and religion are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and guaranteed in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) as well in the constitutions and other legislation of many ASEAN member states.

However, governments across the region are imposing sweeping restrictions on the right to freedom of expression through repressive legislation as well as state-sanctioned attacks and intimidation. Draconian laws, often enforced under the guise of protecting national security, target peaceful dissenters both online and offline. Human rights defenders who are working on the frontline to promote human rights as well as to expose human rights abuses by state and non-state actors continue to face attacks, threats and imprisonment for their work.

In Malaysia, the authorities have increasingly used the colonial-era Sedition Act over the past year to investigate, charge and imprison opposition politicians, activists, human rights defenders, academics, journalists, lawyers and others who have peacefully expressed their opinions that are, or are perceived by the authorities to be, critical of the government or the monarchy.

Human rights defenders in Thailand have faced prosecution, enforced disappearances, intimidation and violent attacks, including assassinations, to silence them.  Scores of community-based human rights defenders have been killed in the country since 1993, and perpetrators have frequently enjoyed impunity. Over the last decade new legislation has been passed and to restrict freedom of expression, including on the internet, and to silence peaceful critics. Since taking power in May 2014, Thailand’s military authorities have issued orders heavily restricting peaceful expression and assembly, including to ban news reports and publications under the interim constitution. Hundreds of people have been arbitrarily detained and dozens dragged before military courts for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The military authorities have made unprecedentedly high use of the lèse-majesté law to imprison individuals in the name of security for acts which would not be considered crimes under international law. In the deep-south of Thailand, human rights activists have faced threats, detention and trumped-up charges under martial law since 2004.

The suppression of peaceful, social and religious activism is evident in Viet Nam; at least 60 prisoners of conscience remain, many of them having been convicted of peacefully expressing their views after unfair trials. Among them are bloggers, including Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, who was sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment in 2010 after writing about political and economic issues in the country.

In Indonesia, scores of peaceful pro-independence activists from the Papua and Maluku regions remain imprisoned, some for as long as 20 years, and sometimes simply for raising or waiving a flag. Human rights defenders continue to face intimidation and threats and some have been charged under criminal defamation laws. Blasphemy laws also continue to be used to repress minority beliefs.

Human rights defenders, political activists, journalists and farmers continue to be arrested and imprisoned in Myanmar for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression – despite a presidential commitment to clear Myanmar’s jails of prisoners of conscience by the end of 2013.

Restrictive laws on internet use have been passed in Laos, where the state controls all media, and the enforced disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone has had a chilling effect on human rights defenders in the country. And in Cambodia a draft cybercrime law has been widely criticized by civil society for vaguely worded provisions which could be used to suppress free speech and criticism of the authorities if passed.

These restrictions on freedom of expression that are sweeping across the region – using excuses such as protecting religion, the monarchy, and national security – and the silencing of dissenting voices, are troubling steps backwards. Government leaders attending the ASEAN summit in Malaysia have an opportunity to reverse this trend.

Our organizations call on ASEAN governments to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression and to repeal or amend all laws that violate these rights. Further, they should end the continued intimidation, harassment, arrest, imprisonment and other forms of attack against human rights defenders operating within their countries and allow them to carry out their work without fear of persecution. Our organizations also call for the unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience detained simply for peacefully exercising their human rights.

Note:  A workshop by Amnesty International and SUARAM on freedom of expression and human rights defenders in ASEAN was held today at the ASEAN People’s Forum 2015 in Kuala Lumpur.

[GHAH] – Memorandum: Withdraw amendments which make the Sedition Act a harsher tool of oppression


Gerakan Hapus Akta Hasutan (GHAH) have come together to express in the strongest terms our opposition to the amendments to the Sedition Act 1948.

We view the proposed changes as a major setback to fundamental liberties and rule of law, the latest in the series of assaults on the nation’s democracy.

The way in which this amendment bill is enacted is nothing short of deplorable. It was done in secret, without consulting opposition members of Parliament, and stakeholders such as civil society and the Malaysian Bar.

Its introduction to members of Parliament yesterday for debate today leaves little room for a robust discussion and critique of this important piece of legislation, a modus operandi used liberally by the BN-led government of late.

The repeal of the “seditious tendency” provisions against the government and the administration of justice in the Act is a small improvement.

However, the rest of the amendments do not address other problematic provisions found in the Act.

In fact, if passed, the amendments fortify the already draconian law with harsh and disproportionate punishment. It further straitjackets legitimate criticisms by enlarging the definition of what is seditious.

We deplore the Bill for these reasons:

  1. The explanatory statement, citing an increase of harmful and malicious comments attacking our tolerant and plural society as the reason for the Act’s continued relevance, is misleading. It is the government which has been tacitly supporting extremist behaviour and using the Act to clamp down on opposition politicians, academics, lawyers, dissidents, journalists, and others, to make certain issues off limits, stifle civil liberties and create a climate of fear reminiscent of the worst days under the iron-fisted Mahathir regime.
  2. It is disrespectful of the Federal Court, which is currently hearing the challenge by law lecturer Assoc Prof Azmi Sharom on the constitutionality of the Sedition Act 1948.
  3. The inclusion of “religion” as an additional ground for seditious tendency is unwarranted; there are sufficient provisions in the Penal Code to cover hate speech relating to religion.
  4. The increased punishment from a fine of not more than RM5,000 or imprisonment not exceeding 3 years, to a harsher punishment: mandatory imprisonment between 3 to 7 years, thus taking away the courts’ sentencing discretion and ensuring offenders are punished harshly.
  5. Creation of “aggravated” sedition for offences leading to bodily injuries or damage to property and is punishable with imprisonment for a term between 5 and 20 years. This provision seems tenuous and unusual and would be better dealt with under the Penal Code;
  6. Non-granting of bail when charged for “aggravated” sedition cases;
  7. Requirement to surrender one’s passport and being prevented from leaving Malaysia when charged for “ordinary” sedition cases;
  8. Prohibitory order to prevent access to any electronic device if one has made a seditious publication; fine up to RM5,000 or imprisonment not exceeding 3 years if one breaches the order;
  9. Failure to remove prohibited publication by electronic means can be fined up to RM5,000 or imprisonment not exceeding 3 years;
  10. Courts can authorise sites to be blocked if anonymous seditious comments cannot be identified.
  11. Legitimate demands for secession are used as an illustration of what is considered seditious; this is against the right to self-determination.

The proposed amendments are absolutely scandalous and disproportionately punish mere “speech offences” with no real victims, unlike common crimes like robbery or murder.

We too believe that freedom of speech is not absolute. However, the threshold for curbing freedom of speech – e.g. incitement to violence and hate speech – must be high to ensure legitimate criticisms and political dissent are not criminalised.

This archaic law, which Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged to repeal in July 2012 and has since reneged on that promise, has no place in a modern and democratic Malaysia that we aspire to be.

Given that legitimate secession calls will be classified as seditious, we especially call upon the elected representatives from Sabah and Sarawak to speak up and help put a stop to this Bill.

We urge the government to immediately withdraw the amendments on the Sedition Act 1948; impose a moratorium over its further use; and work towards its abolishment.


Gerakan Hapus Akta Hasutan (GHAH)