Violence in Malaysia Has Some Burmese Heading for Exits

By Saw Yan Naing 14 June 2013

A week after a series of violent attacks that has left five Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia dead, and as local authorities talk of deporting thousands arrested in connection with the violence, many Burmese in the country are considering leaving voluntarily—if they can.

“Many migrants who obtained work permits want to leave Malaysia now because they are very afraid. They no longer want to stay here,” said Myat Ko, a Burmese migrant living in Kuala Lumpur.

According to Myat Ko, who is a member of a network of Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia, 18 Burmese nationals left the country on Thursday, and many more are expected to return to Burma in the coming days. Among them, he said, are around 800 who have overstayed their visas, making them vulnerable to the police sweep that has ensued in the wake of a series of attacks from May 30 to June 7.

The attacks, carried out by unknown assailants, and apparently targeting Burmese Buddhists, have raised fears of further violence to come, despite assurances from the Malaysian government that it has the situation under control.

On Friday, Burmese state-run media reported that a total of five people had died as a result of the attacks, up from previous reports of four fatalities. Several others have been hospitalized.

In response to the panic among some Burmese in Malaysia, several of Burma’s richest businessmen, including Aung Ko Win, chairman of Kanbawza Bank, Zaw Zaw, the managing director of the Max Myanmar Group, and Tay Za, founder of the Htoo Trading Company, have pledged to help those wish to return.

“Some will get a free ticket, while others will get a 50 percent discount to fly back to Burma,” said Myat Ko, who is also involved in fundraising efforts.

However, lack of return airfare is not the only obstacle for some who don’t want to stay in Malaysia. Many say that bureaucratic red tape at the Burmese embassy, where they are expected to submit ID certificates and other documents before they are permitted to return, is another problem. Others say that their Malaysian employers won’t let them leave unless they pay a 1,000- ringgit (US $320) fine.

On Thursday, Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi Jaafar said after a meeting with a visiting Burmese delegation led by Deputy Foreign Minister Zin Yaw that his government is seeking Burmese cooperation in repatriating Burmese nationals.

“We have 4,400 Myanmars detained in immigration detention centers now, and we have invited the Myanmar authorities, especially the embassy, to… bring them back,” the Malaysian minister said, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

He also called on the UN refugee agency UNHCR to expedite processing of Burmese refugees who feel they can’t return to Burma.

There are an estimated 95,000 Burmese refugees living in Malaysia. They are allowed to stay in the country, but are not granted legal status.

There are believed to be a total of 400,000 Burmese nationals living in Malaysia, including many undocumented migrants and holders of fake UNHCR registration cards.