Former Inmate of Belantik Camp
I would like to report you about the ethnic people of Burma who have been suffering from the violation of fundamental human rights in the government detention centers of Malaysia. In the dark corners of Malaysia, the struggle and anguish of the detainees continue even after their judicial sentence expires.
Department of Immigration (Malaysia) used to say that the detainees were “released” at the border with Thailand after serving their full sentence and staying in the immigration camps for a short period of time. Actually, the corrupted Immigration officials of Malaysia did not”release” but sell them to human traffickers like commercial goods. In order to be freed from the hands of traffickers, they had to pay between 2000 and 2500 ringgits. Some of them managed to collect that amount of money on time from their friends and relatives while some do not. Those who could not afford to pay were resold again to Indonesian fishing boats through human trafficking networks. Along the way, some of them lost their life due to the excessive beating and torture by the thugs who were hired by the human traffickers.
In Belantik Camp, these horrific crimes of human trafficking had been committing by the Malaysian Immigration officials until July, 2009. On the month of July alone, about 60 people were sold. At that time, one detainee stroke a deal with the immigration officials and managed to leave for Thailand. Later, any detainee who wanted to escape to Thailand was asked to pay 600 ringgits to them.
The aforementioned human trafficking activities were in active mode until the media coverage regarding the Bangladeshi and Rohingya boat people had highlighted the atrocities against the refugees in the region. Though it was the good news that the number of detainees sold to human traffickers were greatly reduced, the camp was then overcrowded with the arrivals of new detainees. Currently, a diverse group of around 800 people are living in Belantik Camp and they have come from many countries including Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, China and South Africa.
Belantik Camp is located in the northernmost state of Kedah, Malaysia. In the camp, there is a building which is 120 feet long and 22 feet wide. It was where all the 800 detainees were cramped into. However, one immigration staff said that the building still had the capacity for another 200 people. It was a hell when we were forced to squat inside the building filled with the scorching heat of typical Malaysian afternoon. While the space had already been limited for all the detainees, we were frequently forced to squat tightly facing each other’s torso. One time, we were forced to squat for one hour and one old Bangladeshi got fainted and fell to the ground.
During the nighttime, over 400 people had to sleep in the main building tightly and in order; head to head and feet to feet. It seems like the corpses that are placed neatly to identify or to transfer to the morgue. Another 200 refugees slept under the open sky while another 100 in “Rekod Office”. The rest of us spent the night in another room. Out of 800 refugees, only about 200 received blankets. When it started raining at night, the people who had been sleeping outside would rush back into the building waking up everyone. Then, we all had no choice but to give them room. Then we had no more space to lie down and we had to sit up. Sometimes, we had torrential downpour for days making everyone lost a great deal of sleep.
Everyday we were provided with one fried fish which was about 3 inches long, and one scoop of cucumber or Opo squash or cabbage soup, or squash as a side and one dyed drink. We do not mean that we must be fed with a fancy meal. But at least, a simple clean and nutritious meal should have been satisfactory. Trays used to serve meals were placed on the floor while the flies were dashing around them. They were washed with detergent and sometimes the residue of the detergent could be seen due to the scarcity of water to clean them thoroughly. However, the staff did not bother about it and continued putting food on them. Since there was no designated eating area, we all had to have meals on the lot where we slept. There was no supervision by the responsible persons on the food serving arrangement. Once, about 60 people suffered from diarrhea after eating leftover beef curry.
Among the 8 latrines located on the camp, only four of them were in service. The rest of them had to be shut off since 2007 due to the complaint of the stench coming from them by the locals who lived about 50 yards away from the camp. It was a huge problem with toilets In July, 2009 when the cover of one of the septic tanks blew off due to the pressure build up inside. All the sewage and worms from the tank was all over the restroom area. Since there was no enough water to clean up they stayed there for about 15 days while the stench stuck around even longer. The authorities did not try to fix the tank quick enough. Therefore, all the refugees had to wait in line for hours to go to toilet. Meanwhile, some people got sick. Some people had diarrhea and they were waiting and going to toilet around six times a week. Only when about 100 detainees got sick, a few packages of rehydration solution for their loss of fluids and electrolytes finally came down to them. However, they did not get what they were given because the immigration officers had snatched away some of medicine before it reached into their hands.
There was no clean drinking water. We drank the same water from water pipe that we used for bathing. The bathing area was 20 feet by 40 feet without roof and there were two water tanks from which tiny amount of water flows through the three-quarter inch pipe. For six cups of water, we had to wait for at least half an hour. We usually saw at least 15 people waiting in the line for bathing. When we were in prison, a short piece of bath towel was provided. But in Belantik Camp, we all had to bath naked. No body soap was provided either. Moreover, the tanks were not cleaned on regular basis. Therefore, a lot of people suffered from skin diseases. To make a matter worse, the bathing area got easily flooded with 3 inches of dirty water. Since there was no designated area to pee, people tend to do that there resulting in increased rate of spreading skin diseases and bad odor. For those who got up late, it was even harder to get clean water to wash their face. The water pipe was always shut off during the peak hours. We did not know why it was like that. Sometimes, the authorities cut off the water supply without any advance notice. There were a total of 10 cups for each group of 70 people and 3 of them were broken. These cups were used for both bathing and cleaning in the toilet. Due to the scarcity of the cups, people tended to fight over them. Some people avoided fighting by using the food trays for cleaning purposes in the toilets. Such practices were totally unacceptable and the authorities ignored our repeated requests to solve that problem.
Every Tuesday, all the sick people were summoned and checked their symptoms by immigration personnel who had no medical knowledge or whatsoever. Some of them were sent back to the camp; even some people who are suffering from the illness that were hard to detect such as high blood pressure, and gastric ulcer. Only those people who had passed the check of the immigration staff got treated by MobileClinic and appropriate pills were given. However, the patients did not have an opportunity to receive those pills directly. They went through the “Checkers” who always took some of the pills for themselves or to sell them in the future. Since the required amount of medicine was not swallowed the patients tend to suffer their illness longer. When the patients were provided with coughing medicine that had a fraction of narcotic properties, they even got less. Checker and so called “Orang Keraja”, workers in the camp, always had upper hand in that circumstance and consumed it. The responsible immigration officers would not do anything about it even if they knew. For TB patients, it even got worse. Their prescription required them to take certain medicine on regular basis over certain period of time without break. When the patients did not get the medicine that was supposed to take, they had no choice but to break the prescription cycle. Then they had to start all over again. As mentioned above, the Checkers controlled the pills and sometimes, the pills got mixed up. One time, the Rohingya Checker slipped a medicine into the hand of his fellow Rohingya. Not only the Checker did not know which kind of medicine he was giving to but also the other did not know what he was about to take. Luckily, someone who did know about that medicine managed to stop him. There were many of such incidents. The right kind of medicine was not getting into the hands of the right patients because of the Checkers and lack of supervision by the immigration officers. At the end, all patients had to suffer because of them. Moreover, the authorities did not separate the patients who were suffering from infectious diseases from the conventional ones. It was extremely dangerous to stay, eat and sleep with these patients.
Relationships in the camp
Ethnic Burmese and Non-Ethnic Rohingya
Ethnic Burmese includes Kachin, Kayar, Karen, Chin, Mon, Burman, Rakhine, Shan and other ethnic nationalities. There were about 350 ethnic Burmese in the camp and another 150 are non-ethnic Rohingya. Since both the local Malaysian immigration officers and Rohingya were Muslims, the latter were favored to be Checkers and Orang Kerajas in the camp by the former. Then, Rohingya Checkers and Orang Kerajas favored their fellow Rohingya. Since the ethnic Burmese did not get treated equally, the relationship between two groups was badly constrained. Every time people from each group got into confrontation, ethnic Burmese were punished unfairly accusing them that they had insulted Islam. In the camps, Muslims prayed 5 times a day and during their prayers, everyone had to be motionless and speechless. No one was allowed to stand but sit during their prayers. When someone failed to do so, he was sent to the immigration officers resulting in caning and hard labor. It was not like that when ethnic Burmese were Checkers and Orang Kerajas. We were only instructed to speak softly at that time. Moreover they would occupy the bathing area and cups to clean themselves before they prayed. When priority was not given to them, we were accused of insulting their religion.
Relationship between Burmese Muslims and Rohingya
UNHCR Representative came and interviewed people who feared of persecution and oppression if they went back to Burma. If their reasons to fear of potential persecution and oppression were found legitimate, they were recognized as refugee. During that process, Rohingya paid 100 ringgits to Malaysian immigration officers and sat for the UNHCR interview jumping the people who were ahead of them in the list. It was critical for them just to sit for the interview to get refugee status since 99 percent of the interviewee was granted of that status. Therefore, Burmese Muslims also tried to jump the body number and sit for an interview by bribing the Malaysian immigration officers. As Burmese Muslims and Rohingya competed to be interviewed as soon as possible, they sometimes got into argument and fights.
On the other hand, most of Chin nationals also got granted because of their Christianity faith. It was very rare for Rakhine and Burman to be recognized as refugee. One time, one Chin interpreter bluntly said to us not to sit for an interview if the person was Rakhine or Burman and there was no chance if he was neither Chin nor Rohingya. Even if Rakhine and Burman had UN documents and card, they were not called for an interview. There were some people who had not been called for the interview for 7 months. We had no harsh feeling for Chin and Rohingya for getting more favors from UNHCR. However, other ethnic groups of Burma should not be blocked from a chance of interview at the same time. If we don’t get interview, there is no chance for us to get recognized as refugee. Then, we cannot not only go back to Burma but also sit for UN interview. Apparently, Rakhine and Burman might end up in Belantik Camp and stay in the camp for the rest of their lives. We urge all the ethnic groups, exile media, NGOs, and religious organizations to take this matter seriously and solve it as soon as possible. If someone’s sentence expires, he or she should be released. Now not only they were not released by Malaysia immigration officers, they were also blocked by UNHCR interpreter from sitting for an interview based on our race and religion. This is a major violation of human rights. In September, when about 40 refugees were taken from the camp, Rohingya Checker demanded 200 ringgit from each refugee saying that the money was for immigration officer. If they could not afford to pay, their official UN document was confiscated by them. It was obvious that without the support of immigration officers, there was no way that Rohingya Checker could do that. Due to the awful acts of the Checkers, some detainees from the camp even suspect that even UNHCR representatives might involve in such illicit activity.
Immigration Staff and the detainees
There are a lot to talk about regarding the relationship between the immigration staff and the detainees. First of all, as the reader might know, over 90 percent of the detainees did not have passport. Some people fled the country to escape from Burmese military government’s oppression while some came to work so that they can support their family back home. In other words, they were not criminals. However, Malaysian immigration officers treated the detainees harshly like the criminals except those from whom they were benefiting.
The practice that we liked in the camp was standing in line orderly whenever they were giving us something to eat. Orang Kerajas supervised the line so that no one could cut the line. Once, as a Rakhine forgot the drinking cup he went back to get it and tried to be back in his previous place. When the Checkers saw that, he was beaten severely without asking him any question or whatsoever. We had never witnessed of beating Rohingya who not only cut the line but also stole more food than what we were supposed to have. It was an utter act of discrimination.
One time, immigration officers called for two Burman and beat them for two days. We were all shocked. We did not know and dare not ask why. At another time, 55 years old man was beaten rigorously in front of all the people for finding a drug on him. So we wondered which drug might have been; narcotic drug or cigarettes. Then we found out it was just Panaldol, a painkiller. We had seen a list of prohibited item in “RO” room. That included camera, cell phone, weapons, cigarettes, and narcotic drugs. In this case, it was only a painkiller and he did not break their rule. It was very cruel of them to beat someone innocent for no reason. Plus, it was officially given to him when he was in Pokok Sena Prison before he had arrived at the camp. When they beat, they picked the particular area to hit; not only head and shoulder, but also the throat by batons. That poor old man felt so painful that he could not eat for about a week and he had to lie in bed for weeks. Everyone in the camp witnessed the beating. However, no one can do anything about it rather than feeling sorry for him. We just gave him our biscuit and tried to lift his spirit up.
At another time, one mad boy got pounded. Due to his mental disorder, he threw away all of his belongings including his wallet. He would run away and roam around. When the immigration officers caught him, he got beaten ruthlessly by rotating officers again and again. He was asked to stay on his knees and they whip him at his soles. We thought they would strike him for a few times. But they were not stopping and we did not stop counting. Only after 16 lashes, they finally stopped. The boy was so painful and scared that his whole body was shaking and he could walk no more. The next day, he was brought to the front of all people with derogatory signs hanging on his back and front. The front one said ‘Awas Saya Suka Lari High Way’ and the back one said ‘Awas Saya Gila Perempuan’. It was unbelievable and disgusting to see such a cruel act. We did not understand why such an extensive beating was necessary. Their behavior indicated their wicked mindset. He could neither eat nor drink and finally he had to be hospitalized. We wondered what we could do for him and we thought reporting such an atrocity that has been occurring in the camp would be the best way to help him and other detainees. Because we are writing about him that does not mean that he is Burman or Rakhine. He is a Burmese Muslim.
We believe that all detainees in the camp except a group of Rohingya who works for immigration officers have to suffer in the camp equally. We feel a great pain for ourselves and others. That is why we try to compile all the unfortunate incidents in the hope of stopping them in the future. The aforementioned are all true stories; we might have missed some incidents but we do not exaggerate.
Representative from UNHCR came to camps to solve the problems of Burmese refugees. When the persons pass the interview step, they might receive refugee status documents from UNHCR. However, the interpreters are mostly Chin and Rohingya.
Rohingya and Rakhine have long history of racial tension between them. Therefore, it is not appropriate to use Rohingya interpreter for Rakhine interviewee. No matter how well interviewee can answer the UNHCR Representative’s questions, it is almost certain that they will not pass the interview because the interpreter will not interpret correctly. In the same way, Chin interpreters only try to interpret correctly for their fellow Chin or Christians. Actually, each ethnic group has able interpreter; Karen interpreter for Karen, Mom for Mon, Rakhine for Rakhine. UNHCR is not just an organization that represents only Chin and Rohingya. All other ethnic groups must also be entitled for their representation in terms of interpreter. Now all the good intentions of UNHCR have not been effective due to its Chin and Rohingya interpreters.
When Rohingya knew that UN Representative was coming to the camp, Rohingya bribed 100 ringgit to immigration officer in order to be on the top of the list. Then, immigration personnel would let them sit for an interview earlier and UN representative would just ask them necessary questions since he or she had no way to find out who was actually on the top of the list. When Rohingya whose body number was 6000 gets interview earlier than Rakhine or Burman whose body number was 4000, the whole camp got upset and noisy with loud complaints. Later, the detainees would be called up according to their body numbers. Sometimes, the numbers got mixed up and the same person would be called up twice. Jumping body numbers was not new to the camp and it had been going on for some time. Even interpreter got involved in such cases. We understand that interpreters would like the people from their ethnic group to sit and pass the interview. However, what distressed us the most is that they publicly spoke that ‘if you belong to Rakhine or Burman, don’t even try to get an interview. You guys will never pass it.’ The responsibility of an interpreter is to interpret the conversation between protection officer and interviewee, nothing more, nothing less. They have no right to block the legitimate rights of the refugees no matter which ethnic group they belong to. We know that UNHCR will never deny the request for protection by a person who has actually fled a country without thorough questioning of their story. Therefore, such behavior of the Chin and Rohingya interpreters is totally unacceptable. If the total number of UNHCR recognized Rohingya refugees is compared with ethnic Burmese refugees, it is obvious that only a tiny fraction of ethnic Burmese got recognized by UNHCR. There are still a number of ethnic Burmese who are perfectly eligible for UNHCR recognition. Judging from the current circumstances, ethnic Burmese might have to stay in the camp under aforementioned conditions for the rest of their life.
While Rakhine and Burmese were not having a chance for UNHCR interview, illegitimate Bangladeshis were getting recognition as Burmese. A group of Bangladeshis bribed the Malaysian immigration staff and got and passed the interview in September. Though it was true, the detainees dared not to speak up due to their fear for retaliation from the authorities and the lack of tool such as camera to collect the evidence.
After learning about the camp, we would like to urge all the readers to think of a way to help out our fellow Burmese who were still in the camp. If we do not come up with the solution, they will not find any hope for a new brighter day in the camp in which the conditions are even worse than in prison.
D. Wheeling and Dealing of Immigration staff
When the Burmese detainees could not be sold at the border like it used to, the number of people in the camp got increased. Then, immigration staff approached us and said that we would be released in a week if we could give 3000 ringgits. They brought one broker to their office and instructed us to pay the money to him in full. There were about 15 people who would like to pay. But some people could not afford the whole amount, so they paid 2000 ringgits first instead of 3000. By the time one week had passed and nobody still had left the camp, people realized that something was not right. Therefore, the people who had given the money went and asked the high ranking official, Mr. Pin who was one of the most responsible persons. Since he could not keep his promise, he got frustrated and angry with them and threatened that they would be beaten if they kept asking about that matter. Since they were scared of asking him again, they tried to call the broker. But his phone was off. Finally, everyone came to conclude that it was a scam. According to Islamic laws, when someone takes something in improper way, it is a crime or Harum. Therefore, that officer committed Harum. Among the people who lost the money, there were a few Muslims. Since he committed Harum against his Muslim brother, his crime was even serious. Though there was a list of prohibited items in RO office, it was immigration officers who broke the rule. They would use Orang Keraja to sell cigarettes in the camp and share the profit with him. However, when Operasi, a high ranking official came to the camp to inspect and found leftover cigarettes, he demanded who smoked; he never asked where people bought the cigarettes.
There were public phones in the camps. But we were never allowed to use. On the second floor, there were offices and officers would take 10 persons at a time to make calls. We were charged 50 ringgits. After we had given the money, he would make a missed call to the number we wanted. Then, when the person from the other line called back, we were allowed to talk for the maximum of 3 minutes. Even though there were public phones and we could use with phone cards, they did not let us use for their own benefits. The same goes with the food. We had to pay 13 ringgits for instant noodle soup package which was only 3.50 ringgits at the market value, 3 ringgits for roasted peanut that was at market value of 1 ringgit, and 7 ringgits for biscuit at market value of 1 ringgit.
Based on our experience in jail, prison, and in camp, we found that immigration officers treat the people the worst. They have no integrity and moral value that government servants should have. There are a lot of corrupted officials in Burma too. But it is at least understandable for a country that has been under the bad governments for about 5 decades. However, in Malaysia which is a fairly developing country, it is shocking to see such a group of despicable government employees.
Immigration staff took almost everything from the detainees who had handed their belongings when they first came to the camp. When the detainees who had passed UNHCR interview and were eligible to leave the camp asked their stuff back, the authorities could not return them. Even in jail, and prison, we wrote down the list of our belongings at the designated check-in book and handed them over to the officials. And we did not lose anything. Just in the camp, we lost almost everything including money and shoes. If we complained them about that for a few times, they even threatened to beat us. When friends and relatives sent food and materials to the camp there were many times that things got lost. Even when they did not get lost, we still had to pay commission to the authorities for our own food that our loved ones had bought with their own money. They usually took 30 percent of the total value.
The aforementioned are all real stories. All the detainees had served their judicial sentences. However, they were still detained in the camp longer than the actual sentenced period. Unlike being in the prison, they do not know when they will be released. When they have chance to sit for UNHCR interview, Chin and Rohingya are blocking them. And most of them do not have money to bribe the corrupted immigration officers either. Therefore, in order to find a way to end their ordeal, we have prepared this lengthy report. Again, the aforementioned do not base on the third persons. These are what we have gone through and witnessed.
Translator ( Burmese to English) Kyaw Htoo Aung ( USA )
Title: Belantik Camp - A Tale from Malaysia
Author: A Former Inmate of Belantik Camp