Escalating clashes in Myanmar: Malaysia must pay attention to conflict in Myanmar, not just the Middle East

The escalating conflict in Myanmar is causing people to flee and this could result in more human trafficking and refugee inflow into Malaysia.

People cross the Moei river as they flee Myawaddy township in Myanmar to Thailand's Mae Sot town in Thailand's Tak province, Saturday, April 20, 2024. More than a thousand people have fled from eastern Myanmar into Thailand on Saturday as fresh fighting erupted near the border of the town that has recently been captured by guerillas from the Karen ethnic minority, officials said.(AP Photo/Warangkana Wanichachewa)
People cross the Moei river as they flee Myawaddy township in Myanmar to Thailand's Mae Sot town in Thailand's Tak province, Saturday, April 20, 2024. (Photo: Associated Press)

Everyone who has a television set or owns a smartphone knows that Iran launched a missile and drone attack on Israel on 13 April.

Malaysians know that the attack was in retaliation for a strike on Iran’s consulate in Syria on April 1 which killed several officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' overseas Quds Force, including Brig Gen Mohammad Reza Zahedi, who oversaw Iran's military operations in Lebanon and Syria.

They know that more than 300 drones and missiles were intercepted by Israel and its allies and that, according to an Israeli spokesman, little damage was done.

Malaysians also know about the very muted retaliation by Israel on Iranian territory. Although details are scarce, it appears that little damage was done by the “blasts” in the central province of Isfahan.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was quoted by NBC News as saying: “It was the flight of two or three quadcopters, which are at the level of toys that our children use in Iran.”

Malaysians hardly aware of the fighting in Myanmar

Malaysians are also very much aware that the Palestinians are suffering in a war with Israel that has dragged on for more than six months. In fact, they are daily bombarded with news – whether on mainstream news channels or via social media – of events in Gaza.

But not many Malaysians are aware of the civil war in progress in neighbouring Myanmar; and even if they are, they seen uninterested. This is what I gather from talking to people.

Malaysians are more concerned about what is happening thousands of kilometres away than what is happening nearer to home - and this is not good.

I’m not saying we should not be concerned about the suffering of people elsewhere or about major conflicts in other regions. I’m also not saying that the conflict in the Middle East, for instance, will not impact us. It likely will, by way of higher prices of some goods and services.

I am just saying that we must be more concerned about something that will have a direct impact on us rather than something that happens far away.

I am just saying that the Malaysian government should give more attention to what is happening in Myanmar, which has been in turmoil since 2021 when the military deposed an elected civilian government, than the Middle East.

According to an AP report, United Nations assistant secretary-general for political affairs Khaled Khiari told the UN Security Council last week that “the civilian toll keeps rising” amid reports of indiscriminate bombing by Myanmar's armed forces and artillery shelling by various parties.

As fighting intensifies, more people are fleeing to Thailand

He said the breakdown in the rule of law had enabled illicit economies to thrive, with criminal networks preying on vulnerable people with no livelihoods.

“Myanmar has become a global epicentre of methamphetamine and opium production, along with a rapid expansion of global cyber-scam operations, particularly in border areas,” he said. “What began as a regional crime threat in Southeast Asia is now a rampant human trafficking and illicit trade crisis with global implications.”

We know that many Malaysians are falling prey to cyber scams, just as we know that drug addiction is a major problem that refuses to quit. Reports say many of the scam syndicates targeting Malaysians are working out of Myanmar.

According to Reuters, the border town of Myawaddy, adjacent to Thailand, was wrested from military control by a coalition of anti-junta forces last week. Many people, it said, were fleeing to Thailand to escape the fighting.

AP reported on April 13 that the number of people crossing over from Myawaddy to Thailand had “doubled earlier this week to around 4,000 daily as fighting in Myanmar intensified”.

Reuters quoted the Thai health ministry as saying that 1,686 people crossed the border to seek temporary refuge in the town of Mae Sot on 20 April alone.

Will Malaysia see a fresh influx of refugees from Myanmar?

My fear is that the escalating armed conflict in Myanmar – which many are describing as an outright civil war - will send another stream of refugees into Malaysia.

My fear is also that some of these refugees will fall prey to people smugglers.

The United Nations said last November that the number of displaced people in Myanmar had exceeded 2 million.

As at the end of February, 187,010 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia.

According to the UNHCR, 164,310 of them are from Myanmar. They comprise 108,440 Rohingyas, 25,600 Chins, and 30,270 other ethnic groups, all of whom fled conflict areas or persecution in Myanmar.

Malaysia's resources will be further stretched if more refugees pour in.

The government has often been criticised for the way it deals with refugees. The latest criticism, in fact, came on March 6 from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

It said Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government had failed to reform immigration policies related to the treatment of migrants and refugee communities.

Noting the comments Anwar had made about the bad treatment of refugees by the previous government when he was opposition leader, HRW accused Anwar of falling short on his commitments and maintaining the hardline immigration enforcement stance of his predecessors.

Given the current situation, we do not need another influx of refugees. And we certainly do not need to deal with more instances of human trafficking.

Let us never forget the human trafficking tragedy at Wang Kelian

We know that human trafficking is rampant across the Thai-Malaysia border. Most Malaysians suspect that it happens with the collusion of some Malaysians, including uniformed personnel.

I still remember the discovery of 139 bodies - mostly believed to be that of Rohingya - in mass graves in April 2015 among makeshift camps near Wang Kelian, Perlis. Thai police found another 36 bodies on their side of the border.

In June 2023, four foreigners extradited from Thailand were charged under Malaysia’s anti-trafficking laws in connection with the case and the authorities ramped up security in that area.

But that didn’t stop the smuggling of people, as later reports showed. One report said the people smugglers had shifted their operation from Wang Kelian to the Bukit Kayu Hitam border area in Kedah.

According to the aptly titled “Sold like fish” report by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and NGO Fortify Rights in 2019, “thousands” of Rohingya were confined in human trafficking camps in Malaysia and Thailand.

The traffickers lured Rohingya in refugee and detention camps in Bangladesh and Myanmar by promising lucrative employment and Malaysian citizenship.

Noting that Malaysian authorities destroyed the Wang Kelian campsite the day after it was discovered, the report said that this had potentially diminished evidence that could have aided a police investigation.

It recommended that government officials be prosecuted if there was evidence to show the delay in investigations was intentional or that the swift destruction of the sites was to frustrate evidence gathering.

After carrying out a two-year investigation into the discovery of the gravesites, the New Straits Times said on Dec 20, 2020 that its probe “revealed startling new evidence, which suggests a massive, coordinated cover-up”.

It added: “One of the biggest revelations was that the human trafficking death camps had been discovered months earlier, but police only announced the discovery on May 25.

“Another huge question mark was why did police order the destruction of these camps, which were potential crime scenes, before they could be processed by forensics personnel?”

Police immediately denied there was a cover up.

A Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) was subsequently established in 2019. After an inordinately long delay, the 184-page report was finally published on the website of the Home Ministry in October 2022.

Border security must be heightened

Among other things, the RCI found that the torture and death of the smuggled immigrants could have been prevented if authorities had acted speedily and with greater coordination.

The RCI detailed weaknesses in border control and cross-agency coordination including interdepartmental communication within the police department.

It is hoped that those involved in border security have learnt a lesson and are more vigilant now.

I believe the Malaysian Armed Forces are on the ball regarding the worsening situation in Myanmar. I hope other uniformed personal at our borders – especially the police and immigration staff – are well prepared as well.

There should be no repeat of the Wang Kelian incident and there should be strict monitoring along our side of the border to ensure no human smuggling occurs. If necessary, more uniformed personnel should be sent to the border to strengthen security.

Importantly too, the government must plan for all possibilities arising from the conflict in Myanmar.

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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