(New York) - District police in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia should free Burmese asylum seekers detained since June 19, 2009, at a peaceful celebration of the 64th birthday of the Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Human Rights Watch said today.
"The Malaysian authorities only made themselves look ridiculous by cracking down on a peaceful celebration of Aung San Suu Kyi's birthday," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "By detaining Burmese asylum seekers who were calling for democracy in their homeland, Malaysia was broadcasting support for Burma's despotic generals."
The scheduled gathering in Malaysia was one of many held worldwide to condemn Suu Kyi's arbitrary detention and her current trial in Rangoon. The Nobel laureate has spent 14 of the last 20 years in some form of detention.
In connection with the birthday celebration, Malaysian authorities carried out surveillance, intimidation and eventually arrests, which infringed on the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly.
The Malaysian opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance) and the Petaling Jaya City Council jointly organized the celebration, which was to feature performances by Malaysian and Burmese participants.
From approximately 7 p.m., uniformed and plainclothes police used video and still photography to document the presence of organizers who were preparing the city park and the arriving attendees. Other officers questioned local and Burmese participants.
Efforts by participating organizations to discuss the police action were ignored by the police, who even refused to name the officer in charge. Police blocked all roads leading to the park. In all, more than 100 police officers, including a police riot squad, were dispersed to deal with an event that attracted about 50 participants.
Around 9 p.m. officers arrested 16 Burmese who had arrived to attend the celebration on suspicion of immigration offenses although the police initially mentioned "security concerns" and "illegal assembly." Due to the arrests, organizers called off the event.
Two of the 16, who had valid residency documents, were released. Of the 14 remaining in police custody, nine hold UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) documents but some have not yet completed the refugee status determination process. The five others are not registered with UNHCR.
The Petaling Jaya officer in charge of the police district, Arjunaidi Mohamed, was reported in the media as saying that the detained Burmese would be transferred to the Immigration Department, the first step in a lengthy process leading to deportations.
As of June 22, the 14 remain in police custody. Human Rights Watch called upon the authorities to allow UNHCR full access to those arrested, including those who have not obtained UNHCR registration.
Detention of refugees and asylum seekers is contrary to well-established standards of UNHCR's governing body, called the ExCom. ExCom's Conclusion No. 44 (1986) states that, because of the hardship it involves, detention of refugees and asylum seekers should normally be avoided.
If necessary, detention is only permissible on grounds prescribed by law to verify identity; to examine the basis for claims of refugee status or asylum; in cases involving destroyed or fraudulent documents to mislead local authorities; or to protect national security or public order.
While ExCom conclusions are not legally binding, they are adopted by consensus by the ExCom member states, broadly represent the views of the international community, and carry persuasive authority.
Human Rights Watch has long criticized Malaysia's treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. They, as well as undocumented migrants, are subject to arrest at any time and are often deported without adequate screening of their international protection needs. All face harsh conditions of detention that violate their rights, including whipping, other violence and maltreatment, and overcrowding, poor food, insufficient water and insufficient access to medical care.
Human Rights Watch said that the Burmese detainees should under no circumstances be deported to any place where their life or liberty would be at risk. This includes the Malaysia-Thai border, where they are likely to face further threats from human traffickers and criminal gangs. Burmese deported to the border who are able to pay can often return to Malaysia with the aid of smugglers or traffickers. But many who cannot pay are sold to Thai fishing boats, plantations, or brothels.
On June 16, the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 downgraded Malaysia to tier 3, its lowest ranking, and expressed concern about the trafficking of Burmese at the border.
Human Rights Watch reiterated its call to the Malaysian government to ratify the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, and the Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, among other major human rights treaties. At Malaysia's Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last February, Malaysia rejected a recommendation from several member states that it ratify the Refugee Convention.
"Malaysia's poor record with respect to migrants and refugees is no secret," said Pearson, "One way for the government to signal a fresh start would be in its treatment of Burmese pressing for a democratic government at home."