Why is Malaysia sending asylum-seekers back to Myanmar?

6 min read
Why is Malaysia sending asylum-seekers back to Myanmar

Kyaw Hla, a young ethnic Rakhine Myanmar Navy lieutenant, defected to Malaysia last year. Six naval defectors flew with him.

He is imprisoned in Myanmar. Their fate remains unknown.

Malaysian officials have said little about this and subsequent planes returning Burmese deportees to Myanmar. However, the Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur has been publishing photos of delighted passengers on the flight and embassy staff with Malaysian immigration officials on its Facebook page about its efforts to return undocumented Burmese nationals.

Malaysia prohibits refugees. It did not sign the UN Refugee Convention and Protocol. It also rejects the UN Refugee Agency’s refugee status for asylum seekers at risk of deportation.

185,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mostly from Myanmar, live in Malaysia. 100,000 Muslim Rohingyas from Myanmar and Bangladesh live there.

“Malaysia has become the chosen destination for a variety of endangered minority groups from Myanmar, including the Rohingya, Chin, and Kachin,” says Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch. “Malaysian communities and networks defend new arrivals and promote UNHCR refugee status and protection.”

Saw Shwe Mya, Kyaw Hla’s cousin who has lived in Malaysia for years, says he arrived last year. After the coup that overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration and sparked a countrywide conflict, he escaped Myanmar. He married recently. His mother and two young sons live in Kyauktaw, Rakhine, where the army and ethnic Rakhine insurgents of the Arakan Army have fought fiercely.

Saw Shwe Mya says she did not question him if he participated in the civil disobedience movement that swept Myanmar after the coup. She doesn’t know if he defected due to Rakhine State fighting or coup opposition.

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He stayed near Kuala Lumpur to register with the UNHCR, she claims. He worked whatever he could to pay his bills. He registered with the UN and was anticipating his UNHCR “Under Consideration” card.

Kyaw Hla would have qualified for refugee status as a defector from the Myanmar military, which imprisoned thousands of coup opponents.

Saw Shwe Mya says he was called on September 21 to pick up his UN card. They were arrested and imprisoned for deportation. They were arrested in Yangon on October 6 and are being held in separate locations.

Malaysia previously ignored refugees and asylum seekers.

According to Human Rights Watch, the UK has deported 2,000 Burmese asylum seekers in the past six months without assessing their vulnerabilities in Myanmar.

The Malaysian government has opposed the military dictatorship in Myanmar and reached out to the opposition and the National Unity Government, which supports deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Myanmar opposition considers former human rights activist and Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah one of its closest allies in Asean.

Mr. Robertson calls it a Jekyll-and-Hyde policy. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is pushing the junta to respect human rights and cease the violence, while the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration Department are working with the Myanmar embassy to return refugees back.”

During the COVID-19 outbreak, Malaysians became more wary of refugees. Mass deportations are popular in the weeks before the mid-November general election.

The BBC requested a statement from Home Affairs Minister Hamzah Zainuddin about the deportations, but none was provided.

Kyaw Hla is imprisoned in central Yangon. He may be executed for defecting in a secret military court with no appeal.

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