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Y.B. Datuk Seri Dr. Rais Yatim

Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia

Putra Jaya.

January 19th  2009


Y.B. Menteri,

Re: Burmese Refugees in Malaysia

First, please permit me to re-introduce myself. Until recently I was Malaysia’s High Commissioner to Canada. I retired in July 2008 after having had the privilege of serving our country for 36 years as a diplomat. For 16 of those years I held the rank of ambassador.

Recently, the US Senate issued a statement alleging the abuse of Burmese refugees in Malaysia. A Malaysian newspaper reported that you vehemently denied there was any abuse. You were quoted as saying the accusations were “baseless, ridiculous, and far-fetched.”

In this connection, I would respectfully like to draw your attention to the fact that reports concerning the systematic abuse of Burmese refugees in Malaysia have been circulating for a number of years now. Credible human rights organizations, including those in Malaysia, have for some time now been raising this matter directly or indirectly with agencies of our government. Their reports are easily available on the internet and should be very familiar to our officials by now.

I was myself shocked by many of these allegations and did not, at first, believe that such things could actually be happening in our beloved nation.  Since then, I have personally met with a number of people who have had direct contact with the refugees and have also been in touch with human rights groups in Malaysia; all of them, without exception, indicate that Burmese refugees in Malaysia are being systematically mistreated, abused and harassed, particularly by RELA. Their reports also indicate that some human trafficking is going on as well.

I am sure you will agree Sir, that these reports bring great shame to our nation and enormously undermine our good name and standing. We can no longer afford to simply dismiss all these allegations as mere exaggeration.

In view of this, please allow me to suggest that it would be far more prudent for the government to immediately carry out a thorough investigation into the plight of these refugees and take the necessary steps to end their abusive treatment. We must work with other countries to speed up the resettlement of these refugees while providing them safe and humane transit as long as they remain in Malaysia. Surely, justice and common decency, as well as the high principles to which we as a nation are committed to, require no less from us.

I know that you and your colleagues in the Cabinet would never tolerate or accept such behaviour from any official; denying the existence of these abuses, however, will only perpetuate them. And we would have learned nothing from the mistakes that were made concerning the allegations brought forward by Irene Fernandez some years ago if we try to make the problem go away by excoriating the messenger.

I was in Helsinki recently to attend a meeting and found there was much concern among the European parliamentarians that I met over this issue as well. And I would not be surprised if Canadian parliamentarians  also take up the same issue in due course given the significant Burmese community here in Canada.

Furthermore, I understand that the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee might be turning over to relevant US law enforcement agencies a comprehensive report containing the names, bank account numbers and contact information of some of those Malaysians involved in human trafficking for possible legal action. There is even the possibility that Burmese migrants now living in the US could pursue claims against us in the US court system. This could well become a major PR disaster for us if it is not handled in a timely and satisfactory manner.

I therefore beg you Sir, to personally intervene and take the lead in helping to resolve this unfortunate situation.

At the regional level, it might be timely for Wisma Putra to take the lead in working with our ASEAN partners to find a comprehensive solution to the problem of human trafficking in our region.

At the national level, Malaysia takes in hundreds of migrant workers each year; could we not be magnanimous and compassionate and offer temporary work permits to these refugees until such time as they can be resettled in third countries?

I am only too well aware that our country faces enormous challenges  with illegal migration and refugees but I am sure you will agree that the abusive treatment of these hapless people cannot be part of our response.

Salaam Hormat,

Ambassador Dato’ Dennis Ignatius