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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 February 2006, 16:09 GMT
Malaysia's mystery migrant deaths
By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Walk along the streets of Selayang, a suburb of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, and the phone shops tell you everything you need to know about the population.

Migrant workers carry out their jobs at a construction site in Kuala Lumpur, 23 March 2005.
Migrants are key to Malaysia's economy

The shops sell discount international phone cards, posting the rates to Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Selayang is an area where the capital's migrant workers live, legally and illegally.

For years Malaysia has been trying to contain a burgeoning number of illegal migrant workers.

In late 2004 it declared an amnesty allowing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants - mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines - to leave before launching a major operation to deport the rest in March last year.

But illegal immigrants still make up a large population - hundreds of thousands of people, according to estimates - and the economy depends heavily on foreign workers.

And they live largely anonymously, so anonymously that when five bodies were dragged out of a small lake in Selayang this week it did not merit a single mention in the media.

Exactly how the five died is unclear. There are conflicting accounts from migrants living in the area and from the authorities.

But what is known is that in the early hours of last Saturday, 11 February, an immigration raid took place. The officers jumped from their trucks and made for Selayang's large open market, where many of the migrants work. Mohammad Shaiku, a Burmese with a work permit, was working that night.

"I was inside the market," he said. "The police arrived after two that night and rounded up people. And after that some people ran off to the lake and after that I think the police beat them."

I asked him whether it was the regular police, polis biasa, who carried out the raid, or Rela, Malaysia's controversial baton-wielding volunteer reserve, which was mobilised last March to tackle the immigration issue.

"Rela," he said. "Rela, Rela."

The use of Rela has been criticised by Western human rights groups who say its members are not properly trained or supervised.


Hamzan Ali Abdullah was another Burmese Muslim working at the market. I asked him whether he had seen the authorities arrive.

"Yes we did see them and we had to run and hide very, very quickly," he said.

He ran out the back of the market, through a nearby street and across the road to a lake - a flooded open cast mining pit - about five minutes away at a jog. There he says he hid in the undergrowth and the dark. And through the blackness he heard screams.

"We heard they were crying in their own languages, and some in Burmese crying 'help help'."

Funeral of 29-year-old Thant Zaw Oo, a Burmese Muslim
Relatives who buried Thant Zaw Oo say his body seemed beaten

He could not see the Rela officers in the darkness so I asked whether he had heard them speaking Malay.

"Yes, there were, there were," he said. "The police were shouting: 'Come out come out, if you run away we will kill you'.

"Those caught in their hands were beaten by two or three policemen. They treated them like cattle. Their voices were very haughty and arrogant. Their voices were like soldiers and policemen." The first of the bodies was found later that day.

Malaysia's Interior Ministry has said that police have confirmed the discovery of two bodies.

But according to several local witnesses, five bodies were dragged from the lake over the days that followed.

One was that of 29-year-old Thant Zaw Oo, the uncle of Mohammad Shaiku's wife.

Mr Mohammad said the body showed signs of having been beaten.

"It was half in the water and I saw his teeth, his two front teeth were missing". Black blood [was visible] in his mouth and on wounds on his head and neck, Mr Mohammad said.

Government denial

Other workers at the market also said Rela volunteers appeared angry and had chased migrants towards the lake.

They produced pictures of Zaw Oo's funeral and of another dead man, who they said was a Sikh, being pulled from the water.

Nothing serious happened and the operation went smoothly
Malaysian government on the Rela crackdown

Kuala Lumpur Hospital confirmed that four bodies had been taken there from the lake in Selayang. Zaw Oo's body was not taken to hospital, being buried quickly instead.

While they showed no signs of stab or slash wounds, a doctor said the bodies were too badly decomposed to be able to tell whether they had been beaten with batons, such as those carried by Rela volunteers.

Malaysia's Interior Ministry firmly disputes suggestions anybody died during the raid.

It issued a statement rejecting the migrants' account of events.

"At 2am on 11 February Rela carried out an operation to check documents of foreign workers in the open market at Selayang," it said.

"Nothing serious happened and the operation went smoothly. However many illegal immigrants were seen running away."

The ministry statement referred to two bodies on which post mortems had been carried out and which it said exonerated the Rela team.

"Based on the post mortem report made on 13 February 2006 the deaths occurred about three to five days previously, meaning on 10 February at the latest, proving that these deaths have nothing to do with the Rela operation on 11 February," the statement said.

Human rights groups say the controversy about the incident shows that the government should not be using semi-trained Rela volunteers for such tasks.

"Malaysia should withdraw this authorisation and reserve immigration enforcement for trained government authorities," Human Rights Watch said in a statement issued from New York.

One of the bodies being pulled from the lake
Five bodies were dragged from a local lake

Amnesty International [AI] in London wanted to see tighter controls.

"AI continues to have grave concerns about the training, command and control supervision, and accountability of Rela "volunteers" and Immigration Department officers," it said.

Malaysia's civil liberties groups have taken a similar line.

Off the record, government sources said that Selayang was an area notorious for both organised crime and for gang warfare between rival foreign gangs.

The same sources have suggested that the five may have been victims of such clashes - which does not seem to square with the Interior Ministry's statement that post mortem results showed no sign of any violence.

None of which leaves anyone any clearer about why five bodies turned up in a short space of time in a small lake on the fringes of the capital.

Still, Malaysians are certainly worried about crime and blame much of it on foreign workers. The economy may rely on them but there is limited tolerance for immigrants, illegal or even legal.

And five foreigners can turn up dead in one small area and it does not merit a single mention anywhere in the Malaysian press. Nor did reports widely circulated last year that two migrants died after being struck by a Rela truck, also in Selayang.

From time to time there the deaths of migrants workers does make the news, but it is written small, on the inside pages.

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Malaysia orders migrants to leave
21 Jan 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Illegal workers leave Malaysia
29 Oct 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Illegal workers hide in Malaysia
02 Mar 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia rapped over refugees
10 Sep 03 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Malaysia
14 Jan 05 |  Country profiles

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