Protect our freedom by protecting refugees

Cheah Kah Seng | May 23, 08 4:21pm

I refer to the Malaysiakini report Don’t forget Burmese refugees here too, PM told.

We also need to recall and learn from the Asean governments’ maltreatment of Vietnamese boat people of late 1970’s. True, we were poorer at that time, threats of communist violence and subversion were fresh in our psyche, and Vietnam was not part of Asean then. But hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese sold their belongings for gold bars, and took to the sea on unseaworthy vessels. They drowned at sea, were raided and raped by pirates, and suffered inhumane treatment in camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and to a lesser extent, Hong Kong.

We could have done the right thing if we had expanded the refugee camps, treated them more humanely, and even eventually accepted a large, although limited, number of Vietnamese as immigrants. There should only be two conditions for immigration: a promise to abide by the Malaysian laws and second to learn Bahasa Malaysia. We could eat less to support a certain number of refugees, and we could seek international funding and disburse them fully.

To the ‘economically minded’ who fear sacrificing our economic resources, I say it is ultimately self-rewarding to do the right thing. It would infuse into our society, and in our children, a self- confidence and moral strength that no money can buy.

More practically, yesterday’s immigrants are today’s entrepreneurs and job creators. We would have built closer cultural and business ties between Malaysia and Vietnam by today. Malaysian children – whether Indian, Chinese, or Malay – will one day need that human connection to prosper and add to their employment choices and living standard.

Same today with the Burmese. The Burmese military junta obviously could not respond rationally to foreign offers of help for this cyclone disaster because they have too much evils to hide. As long as the military junta does not collapse (due to China’s support) there will be pressure for the people to take their fate into their own hands, ie, to take flight, and escape to neighboring countries in a multi-year exodus over land to Thailand, Bangladesh, China, and by sea to India and Malaysia.

What are we to do? The refugee flow may not be as dramatic as the Vietnamese boat people. But what are we going to do with more refugees? We cannot even treat today’s Burmese refugees humanely. That the Burmese refugees – who are normally docile and low-profile – have been pushed to rioting inside Malaysian refugee camps is an indication of extreme official mishandling and cruelty.

It is issues such as these that make me wish for a faster change in the federal government. I would have normally preferred a ‘steady-as-she-goes’ approach. But these issues of urgent inhumanity and the inexplicable vengeance against the Hindraf 5 only pile on other longer-term reform considerations – such as the inability and unwillingness of the current government to place the ACA under the parliament, to abolish ISA/PPPA, to create a royal commission on electoral reform, to reform the police to incorporate the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), and its dangerous determination to further empower Rela – that together contribute to my willingness to give up on the current federal government. (Not that we should believe any new government will carry out these reforms without civil pressure.)

Rela, the voluntary corps which is involved in abusing Burmese refugees, in particular, is aninstrument of oppression that happens to be aimed at immigrants for now. It’s only a matter of time before this para-military group is empowered by new laws to refocus on domestic oppression. We must demand that Rela be disbanded, that any good people within Rela be trained and absorbed into the police, and that additional resources be channeled to improve the salary, welfare, training, equipments, and professionalism of the police instead.

What else can we do about Burmese refugees? We can encourage the media to report more on refugee camps and developments. State governments, probably not empowered to manage refugee camps, can nevertheless offer land to expand refugee camps. The state governments can also use whatever power they have to monitor the performance of the police and camp officers, and to help the media do its job.

I have personally known the kindness and protection of a Burmese family who escaped Burma on foot 40 years ago. The parents brought the eldest son and trekked across malaria-infested swamps and tropical jungle, and had to initially leave behind two infant children in Rangoon. They shined shoes in Hong Kong to make ends meet, then settled and rose to commercial prominence in Bangkok over 20 years, building factories and trading houses that have employed thousands of Thai people.

Burmese people look, eat, live, and dress in a style very much like an undeveloped Malaysia did, more so than Thais do. Perhaps some of the street names in Penang will remind us of our historical ties, as well as the economic glory that Burma once enjoyed and could have enjoyed. In the Pulau Tikus area of Penang, for example, there are Burmese temples and at least eight sets of street names that commemorate Burmese cities and rivers, such as: Burmah Road, Moulmein Road, Thaton Lane, Tavoy Road, Rangoon Road, Salween Road, Irawadi Road and Mandalay Road. You can find the origins of all these names on the Net. .

These almost-forgotten street names also remind us of the consequences of giving up our liberty bit by bit to a central government that is built on socialist policies (not unlike our NEP), that will have to depend on strong men, that will inevitably turn authoritarian and fascist. Myanmar and Malaysia were both well endowed with similarly-rich natural resources and broadly similar governing structure half-a-century ago. But we took the path that gave us more liberty to conduct our own lives, to trade, and to be more open to the world.

That made the whole difference. We must not give up our liberty now, even if bit by bit. The best way to protect our liberty is to protect the basic rights of refugees, who are on the fringe of our society. The moment we give up protecting the refugees is the moment we give up protecting the outer fringe of our rights. Then the erosion begins.

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