They tell the story of life in Burma—why they had to flee—and why
their lives are still at risk in Malaysia.
Malaysia: Meet the Refugees
Two weeks after Htut Kuang received his United Nations refugee card he was arrested at a bus stop by Malaysian police. Ten days later he was sold to traffickers who then sold him again to a fishing boat. He worked as a slave on that boat for three years before he escaped.
During my visit to Malaysia in 2007, I met a young Burmese man named “Jack” who had been a human rights activist in Burma working for two NGOs. For his advocacy he was imprisoned and tortured. He fled from Burma at the request of his mother. When I met him he was a waiter in a restaurant in downtown Kuala Lumpur with strong aspirations that one day he would receive resettlement and be able to continue the work of advocating for human rights–without having to risk his own life–and the life of his family–by doing so.
We stayed in touch over the last year and a half and in that time I came to know more about his life in Malaysia and the lives of other refugees in his circle who have become like a new family for him. I returned to Kuala Lumpur in January 2009 and remained for the next four months recording the stories of Jack and his friends.
Our first day we began recording everyone together as a group. I was surprised to learn that no one knew each others' stories. We had decided to try and understand one another without an outside translator, to keep things more intimate. So when Jack or Rick began to translate for me the stories of Htut Kuang, Sin Yi and Kline, there were long pauses when they would stop to digest what they had just discovered about their friend. At one point Jack turned to me and said: “Hold on, Karen, this is very heartbreaking what he just told me.”
In most instances, this was the first time they had ever spoken to anyone what had happened to them both here and in Burma.
On more than one occasion Kline tore her tissue in half and passed me the other half. We would cry and laugh at the same time at the gesture
Htut Kuang was a ferry boat driver in Burma who helped other Burmese escape Burma before he also had to escape himself when the junta chased down his ferry and shot two of his passengers in the middle of their crossing. The United Nations granted Htut Kuang refugee status in 2003. Ten days later he was arrested at a bus station by Malaysian police for not having travel documents. He showed them his United Nations High Commission for Refugee card but he was sent to prison and then detention camp. Another ten days later he was taken to the border by Malaysian immigration where traffickers waited his arrival. They had paid 500 MYR (about $142 USD) to the immigration officials. They demanded roughly $700 USD from Htut Kuang. He was not able to pay and as a result they sold him to an Indonesian fishing trawler. He worked as a slave on that boat for 3 years before escaping into the sea.
Jack was a human rights activist inside of Burma and was imprisoned and tortured before escaping to Malaysia. Here in KL he has been arrested and detained by the RELA (Malaysian government-sponsored vigalante citizen brigade) three times despite having UN High Commission for Refugees protection (UNHCR). He has been waiting for resettlement for three years. In the four months of interviews for this story Jack’s girlfriend, best friend and brother were all arrested by Malaysian police, despite holding UNHCR cards. They are all still in lock-up at the time of this writing: May 2009. Jack lost his job because he missed work to visit them in prison (for more on Jack and his family, view the article at Worldfocus).
Aye Aye Cho fled Burma in order to avoid forced labor and repeated acts of rape by the junta's soldiers. Like thousands of Burmese she fled in the middle of the night to Thailand. Once there people instructed her to go to Malaysia where she could make money and be safe. “Sadly,” she told me, “I listened to those friends.”
Aye Aye was arrested at the Malaysia-Thai border and sentenced to prison. After a few months she was sent to detention camp. From there she was “deported.” Two high-ranking Malaysian immigration officials brought her and 54 other Burmese people to the river that separates Malaysia and Thailand in the state of Kelantan. They were forced to get into a boat that carried them to the gunmen on the other side.
Aye Aye Cho shares with me her prison diary where she kept the details of her trafficking experience. She translated for me certain passages: The traffickers told us: “You belong to us because we paid 500 MYR for each of you ($142 USD) to Malaysian Immigration. Now we have to make our money back plus 500% profit.” (view video of Aye Aye at Worldfocus)
Sin Yi escaped Burma recently–just after the protests–because he was being hunted down by the junta for his participation. Prior to that he had successfully avoided the junta soldiers who came to his town to force boys like him into the military—often taking them from the streets by gunpoint and kidnapping them.
Sin Yi is the record-holder in our group—in the 16 months he has lived in Malaysia he has been arrested by the RELA five times. The last time he waited in detainment for two months only to be sold to Thai gangsters by the Malaysian immigration. He is 21 years old.
Copyright © Karen Zusman. All rights reserved. New York, NY, US.