Myanmar refugees in Malaysia face increasing uncertainty in wake of military coup

Myanmar refugees in Malaysia face increasing uncertainty in wake of military coup

Repeated internet shutdowns have so far not deterred Myanmar's anti-coup protesters
Repeated internet shutdowns have so far not deterred Myanmar's anti-coup protesters. (Photo: AFP/Sai Aung Main)

KUALA LUMPUR: For Mr Kap Ling Sang, a refugee from Myanmar living in Malaysia, the news that the military in his home country had seized power in a coup on Feb 1 created concerns and worries - about members of his own family who are still there and his own future.

As far as his family members are concerned, Internet blackouts in Myanmar are hindering communication, meaning the 42-year-old cannot remain in constant touch. 

“I still have my parents and grandmother in Myanmar. When I can contact them, my first question is always, are they safe?” he told CNA. 

“Whenever I lose contact with my family, I worry whether they have been arrested or not. I’ve lost peace in my heart,” he added. He responded to CNA's questions via WhatsApp with the aid of Google Translate. 

Mr Kap, his wife and their children are members of the Chin ethnic group. They fled to Malaysia from the Chin State in northwest Myanmar in 2010 because of the conflict between the military (widely known as Tatmadaw) and Chin fighters. 

READ: Myanmar protesters stage biggest rallies since troop deployments

Even though Malaysia is not party to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and does not formally recognise refugees, Mr Kap said it is still better living in Malaysia than under military power. 

Protest against the military coup in Yangon
A demonstrator takes part in a protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar, February 17, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

When he first heard about the coup on Feb 1, Mr Kap said he felt as if all hope was lost for his parents and for their future. 

“I lost my appetite during the first four days of the month because I felt really sad, and my wife was sad too,” he said.

These days, he and other Myanmar refugees keep up with news on the military coup via Facebook live streams or international news agencies. And the fluid situation, with attempts by the authorities to end street protests against the coup, is not only raising concerns about their family members who are still in Myanmar - it is also creating doubts about their own future.

For some of them, one main worry is that the coup might derail the process of permanently resettling in a new country. Others, meanwhile, said the coup has made even more distant the dream of returning to a peaceful homeland. 

James Bawi Thang Bik of the Independent Chin Communities, a coalition of Chin refugee organisations in Malaysia, told CNA that many ethnic minority people became refugees as a result of human rights violations and the lack of reconciliation efforts under the military rule.

"Now they (the military) are back in power, do you think these refugees will be willing to go back under this administration?" he said. 

READ: Starting over - Catering social enterprise helps refugees in Malaysia earn a living 

"I FELT TOTALLY LOST AND HOPELESS"

Mr James La Seng Tsumkha, a Kachin refugee who arrived in Malaysia six years ago, recalled being woken up in the early morning of Feb 1 by his wife, who told him the military had seized power from the National League for Democracy. 

"I did not believe it at first as we often hear a lot of news, which usually come from unreliable sources. But around 8am, after reading the BBC, RFA, VOA and Facebook, then only I believed it was true. I felt totally lost and hopeless," he said. 

"My friends back home said no one dared to go out that Feb 1 morning. There were truck loads of soldiers stationed everywhere," said Mr Tsumkha, who still has family in Kachin state.

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Independent Chin Communities, the umbrella organisation for Chin refugees in Malaysia, holding a general meeting. (Photo: Independent Chin Communities)
 

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), out of some 178,610 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the UN agency in Malaysia, about 154,030 were from Myanmar. 

They included 102,250 Rohingyas and 22,410 Chins, while another 29,360 are from other ethnic groups affected by conflicts or those fleeing persecution in Myanmar. 

The lack of legal protection in Malaysia leaves refugees vulnerable to arrest by the authorities, along with limited access to resources such as employment, healthcare and education. 

For shelter, Mr Kap said he and his friends rent an apartment, and each family stays in a room. They do odd jobs to support themselves. 

However, things took a turn for the worse when Malaysia was placed under the movement control order (MCO) last year to lower the rate of COVID-19 infections.

“It was hard to get jobs, we could only work two days a week so it was very hard to earn a living. We choose the cheapest food to save money,” Mr Kap related.

Both Mr Kap and Mr Tsumkha said they are UNHCR document holders. 

FEARS OF DEPORTATION   

The asylum seekers' fears of being deported back to Myanmar have been compounded by the recent military coup. 

“The military is very smart, so I worry that they will do something that will affect us badly," Mr Kap said. 

Last week, Malaysia confirmed that 1,200 Myanmar nationals were to be sent back to their country. The Myanmar military has offered to send three navy ships to pick citizens held in Malaysian immigration detention centres, according to Reuters. 

While Malaysian authorities have stated that deported had committed immigration offences and that no refugees were included in the deportation, the country has been urged to suspend the repatriation plan in light of the situation in Myanmar. Malaysian human rights lawyers organisation Lawyers for Liberty, UNHCR and Amnesty International are among those that have called for the deportation to be halted. 

In a statement on Feb 15, Immigration Department director-general Khairul Dzaimee Daud stated that the deportation only involved Myanmar nationals being held at immigration depots for various offences under Malaysia’s Immigration Act and regulations, such as not possessing any identification documents, overstaying and visa abuse.

“The department wishes to clarify that no UNHCR card holders or Rohingyas were involved in this repatriation programme,” Mr Khairul Dzaimee said. 

READ: Malaysia defends plan to deport Myanmar nationals

Still, refugees like Mr Kap are worried. "If refugees were to be repatriated, any hope of resettlement in a third country would be broken," he said.

DREAM OF RETURNING HOME DASHED 

Mr Bawi of the Independent Chin Communities said that prior to the Feb 1 coup, some minority refugees had considered going back to Myanmar as the situation there seemed to be stabilising.

"Some refugees did consider returning, especially when their state or region saw some light of peace, but many did not trust the politics of Myanmar, so most waited," he said. 

READ: 'I'm a refugee, not useless' - In Malaysia, they who lost it all help uplift others

Mr Tsumkha, for one, had always thought one day Myanmar would be peaceful enough for him to return. 

“Even though I fled to Malaysia, I always want to go back home. There’s no place like home. No one wants to go away from their own home unless they are forced to,” he said.  

"I feel despondent for the Kachins and other ethnicities who reside here in Malaysia. Not only we won't be able to return home, we also don't know when we can resettle in safe countries," he said.

Many children, he said, were born here and their future looks bleak. 

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A scene at KRLC, a pre-school for Kachin children whose families have sought refuge in Malaysia. With limited access to public education, refugee communities often come up with their own education solutions. (Photo: James La Seng Tsumkha)

Similarly, Mr Kap had hoped to return despite the Tatmadaw's involvement in national politics. 

“Previously, I had thought of returning to Myanmar even though the army keeps 25 per cent of the seats in parliament, because I trusted that Aung San Suu Kyi was still better than them.

“But the military coup happened, I am afraid to return. I have set my hope on resettling instead," he said. 

Source: CNA/vt

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