Burmese Migrant Community in Malaysia Simmers after Attacks

By Simon Roughneen 13 June 2013

KUALA LUMPUR — Differing accounts are emerging from Burmese migrants and refugees in Malaysia about recent deadly violence here that has claimed several lives and pitted Burmese groups in Malaysia against each other.

The deaths, which prompted the arrest of hundreds of Burmese nationals by Malaysian police, are being described as spillover from recent Buddhist-Muslim clashes in Burma.

“We don’t know who did these attacks,” says San Win, chairman of the Malaysia Myanmar Free Funeral Service, a Kuala Lumpur-based group that assists Burmese migrants. Flicking through gory photos of roughly stitched victims of the violence, he adds, “but we think it could be the Rohingya people.”

The president of the Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHOM), Zafar Ahmad Abdul Ghani, disputes this speculation.

“This is not correct,” he says, citing previous attacks by Buddhists on Muslims in Burma, which he says did not prompt sectarian reprisals in Malaysia. “We have to respect Malaysian law and if any Rohingya breaks the law, we don’t support it,” Abdul Ghani adds.

Tun Tun, a Burmese Muslim who has long worked to assist Burmese workers living in Malaysia, says that two Muslims were killed in the recent clashes. Tun Tun, who is head of the Burma Campaign Malaysia, says that seven people have been killed—a number at odds with Malaysian police accounts of the recent attacks, which suggest that four have died, all thought to be ethnic Burman Buddhists.

The attacks have raised concerns that the deaths were the result of reprisal attacks by Burmese Muslims living in Malaysia, retaliating after dozens of Muslims were killed in violence over recent months in various outbreaks of religious violence across Burma.

“It started here after Lashio,” says San Win, referring to Buddhist riots and looting that took place in Lashio, the biggest town in eastern Burma’s Shan State. Those clashes started after a May 28 attack, reportedly perpetrated by a Muslim man on a Buddhist woman, and left around 1,400 Muslims homeless.

“But we always try to maintain friendship here [in Malaysia] with Muslims,” San Win adds.

Similarly, Tun Tun says that though relations between Burma’s Muslims and Buddhists in Malaysia have typically been cordial, there has been a marked deterioration in recent months.

Citing what he perceives to be Burmese media bias and exaggerated claims on social networking websites, Tun Tun says discord between Burma’s Muslim and Buddhist migrants is overhyped.

“Some of the 969 movement supporters brought the anti-Muslim campaign to here five months ago, [since] then both side are not trusting each other,” he says, referring to a push by Burmese monk Wirathu and other Buddhist nationalists to boycott Muslim businesses and, some say, incite violence against Muslims in Burma.

Commercial Repercussions

The recent attacks have stalled commerce for Burmese in Malaysia’s biggest city. Next to Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown, Bangladeshi, Filipino, and Indonesian migrants run shops and restaurants on side streets, a hectic din of sales pitches, frying snacks and belching traffic.

Along the nearby Burmese strip, demarcated by signs reading “Kampung [Malay for village] Myanmar,” business has been down in recent days, according to Thu Ya, who runs a Burmese restaurant just around the corner from central Kuala Lumpur’s main bus station.

“A lot of people are staying home, not as much for the violence, but because of the arrests,” he says, speaking while waitresses in Burmese dress ferried drinks and Burmese snacks to the smattering of lunchtime patrons on the premises. One of Thu Ya’s staff remains in detention after being caught up in the Malaysian police dragnet cast after the recent attacks, which mostly took place in Selayang, about seven miles from downtown Kuala Lumpur.

In the Shan Taung Dan restaurant across the same street, a recent arrival from Mandalay, Burma’s second city, says that though concerned by the recent murders and arrests, Burmese migrants around Kuala Lumpur are trying to revert to “our normal life here.”

The man, who asked that his name be withheld, says he landed in Malaysia just two months ago. “I need to make money,” he says. “Yes, reform is good in Myanmar, but is [happening] slowly. So you cannot yet find a good job at home,” he laments.

Between 400,000 and 500,000 Burmese migrants are thought to be living in Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy, drawn by the prospect of low-paying, heavy-lifting jobs in construction and on plantations. According to the United Nations, there are almost 100,000 Burmese refugees in Malaysia.

The Mandalay native says that many people are more concerned about being arrested by Malaysian police than anything else. “Many people don’t have documents. That is why they stay home these days,” he says.

Malaysian press accounts report that the country’s Immigration Department is investigating how 307 detained Burmese came to possess fake refugee papers.

Burma’s other ethnic and religious minorities in Malaysia are wary, fearing members of their communities might be dragged into what is now a simmering sectarian feud. Israel Lal Hmun Siam, a Christian ethnic Chin living in Kuala Lumpur, says “people are worried they might be attacked mistakenly.”

Siam, who works for the Chin Refugee Committee, a support group for the estimated 40,000 Chin Burmese in Malaysia, believes that the recent Kuala Lumpur violence is a spillover from Burma.

“If they solve the conflict in Myanmar, then no problem here,” he claims.

That seems far off, however, with MERHOM’s Abdul Ghani interrupting an interview to take what he said was a call from Burma’s Arakan State. “There was more cutting today, 10 people,” he says, referring to what he says was an attack by Arakanese on Rohingya near Kyauktaw Township.

A Burmese government delegation is currently in Malaysia to assess the situation among Burmese migrants after the recent violence, with Malaysian authorities on Thursday warning Burmese migrants not to restart the recent clashes.

But San Win says he thinks the Burmese government is more concerned with maintaining good relations with its fellow Asean nation than with assisting the Burmese in Malaysia. “They just stay quiet when I tell them the problems here,” he says.

“For now, people are still afraid here.”