The Burmese Embassy in Malaysia is verifying police claims that at least 15 detained murder suspects are Burmese nationals, the embassy said on Tuesday.
Malaysian police arrested the suspects over the past two weeks for their suspected involvement in at least 18 murders of Burmese migrants in Penang, a popular tourist destination in the country’s northwest.
The spate of murders occurred throughout the year, but no related arrests were reported until late November. Some of the victims were severely mutilated, with one recent incident leaving investigators with what the government-owned news agency Bernama described as a “jigsaw of heads, arms, leg and a torso.”
Police claimed last week that the suspects were also migrants from Burma, and local media reported that Penang Police Chief Abdul Rahim Hanafi suggested the violence was a spillover of ethno-religious tensions in Burma, where clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have left more than 200 dead and about 140,000 displaced since mid-2012. Others have fled Burma by boat, many of them stateless Rohingya Muslims seeking refuge in Muslim-majority Malaysia.
The Burmese Embassy told The Irrawaddy that it has received the police reports and is in the process of verifying the nationalities of the accused.
“We are scrutinizing the information, and we cannot tell yet whether all of them are from Myanmar,” said Lin Maung Maung, assistant to the secretaries at the Burmese Embassy in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
About one-third of the suspects have Burmese passports, while the rest are still being verified as they don’t all have legal documentation, he said. Some of the suspects may also be residing in Malaysia with documents issued by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, but may not have passports or birth certificates.
Lin Maung Maung added that the verification may take some time as the police provided only very basic information about the suspects, limited to their names, their fathers’ names, and their addresses.
San Win, a Burmese charity worker living in Malaysia, said that at least two migrants are murdered each month, and that many of the recent victims were Buddhists. As chairman of the Malaysian chapter of the Kepong Free Funeral Services, he and his colleagues often provide ceremonies and family support for migrants who pass away abroad.
San Win said that police in Malaysia are not providing adequate support and information to victims’ families.
“The news here in Malaysia said that the suspects were arrested, but none of the victims’ families were informed,” he said, adding that the only way victims’ families can request the identities of the suspects is through diplomatic channels.
Despite police allegations that the murders were motivated by tensions back home, the embassy’s Lin Maung Muang disagreed, claiming that “most of the cases we are informed of were related to disputes over money.”
Nearly 100,000 people may have made the dangerous boat journey from western Burma to Malaysia or other neighboring countries since 2012, according to the UNHCR, a number that has swelled considerably since the inter-communal violence erupted.
While most new arrivals in Malaysia are believed to be Muslims, some parts of the country also have considerable Buddhist migrant populations, many entering the country legally via employment agencies. A recent report by Reuters said that many ethnic Arakanese Buddhists are also heading to Malaysia in search of opportunity in light of economic woes linked to the violence.