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Politics: Vigilante Attack on Indian Workers Under Probe

Contributed by Anonymous on Wednesday, March 15 @ 19:02:22 CST

Foreign WorkersBy: Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR , Mar 9 (IPS) - In a rare move, the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (MHRC) has begun investigations into the assault by armed vigilantes on a group of Indian migrant workers as they were protesting in front of their country's diplomatic mission here.

In the Feb. 28 incident, that caused a national outcry against RELA (People's Voluntary Corps), 61 Indian migrant workers were clubbed and herded away to a detention camp where they remain incarcerated. About 20 others escaped, while some took refuge inside the compound of the Indian high commission.

In all, 400 Indian nationals have been camping outside the high commission seeking help in sorting out problems relating to their employment, unpaid wages and passports.

The group claimed they were brought to Malaysia last year by a company contracted to provide workers to an electronics factory in Pasir Gudang, Johor state.

The workers claimed that for the first two months, they received a salary. However, in the third month, they were told by the company that there was no more work.

At least two of the workers have been warded in a hospital with fractures and chest injuries.

Under severe pressure from trade unions, opposition lawmakers and human rights groups, the MHRC, also called SUHAKAM, announced Tuesday that it would interview the detainees pending deportation, although they have valid papers to stay.

SUHAKAM commissioner Abdul Monir Yaakob told presspersons that his officers would visit the detention camp at Lenggeng in Negri Sembilan state, about 60 km south of the capital, and question the victims.

''We want to find out what really happened,'' he said, adding that SUHAKAM was acting on a protest lodged by 'Tenaganita', a human rights non-government organisation (NGO) that champions the rights of migrant workers.

Yaakob said a report against RELA, accusing its members of human rights violation, would be discussed. "It (the report) is the first of its kind. We have never received any complaints on RELA before, although there have been reports in the newspapers,'' he told presspersons.

''There is sufficient evidence to show that RELA uses pure violence when arresting people. RELA has done it both to migrant workers and to Malaysians,'' said Irene Fernandez, executive director of Tenaganita.

''The government has in fact turned civilians into thugs and gangsters using sheer brutal force on innocent people with impunity,'' said Fernandez who won the 2005 'Right Livelihood Award', also called the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize.

''The government is in a continuous state of denial, although numerous cases have been brought to its attention,'' she said. ''Para-military vigilantes have no place in a democratic society and should never be given power over migrant workers, already a very vulnerable group.''

RELA was formed about 50 years ago, to combat communist insurgents but has, recently, attracted media attention for serious abuses that include extortion, illegal arrest and brutality.

There were few complaints when RELA was used to control crowds at football matches. But things changed, last March, when RELA cadres were armed and given powers to stop, question and arrest undo*****ented migrant workers. They were paid RM60 (16 US dollars) for each migrant worker arrested, motivating them to 'hunt' down migrant workers.

Suddenly, there was a new force on the streets armed and eager to show off its powers and demand obedience from citizens and threaten foreign workers who are more vulnerable to extortion.

Indeed there has been an upsurge in human rights violations involving RELA.

When five Burmese workers were fished out dead from a lake near a wet market here last month, human rights activists pointed fingers at RELA. The government denied the connection but hospital authorities and colleagues of the dead workers reported suspicion. The bodies were too decomposed for investigations.

But the latest incidence of RELA violence -- the assault on the Indian workers -- took place in broad daylight and in full view of the public and the Indian mission.

The Indian nationals were camping outside the embassy trying to draw attention to their plight -- they had been cheated of thousands of dollars in wages by Malaysian syndicates and employers who promised them office jobs.

It has become common for cheated foreign nationals -- mostly Nepali, Vietnamese, Pakistani, and Bangladeshis -- to camp outside their respective embassies in the hope of gaining justice. In most cases they end up getting a ticket home.

The February 28 assault has revived a debate on whether it is proper for untrained volunteers to be armed and given extraordinary powers.

''These cases represent only the tip of the iceberg of rampant abuse. We strongly condemn the violenct acts and corruption of RELA personnel and call on the government to investigate immediately both the incidents and bring RELA personnel involved to justice,'' said Yap Swee Seng, director of Suara Rakyat (SUARAM), a leading human rights NGO.

SUARAM and the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) joined Tenaganita in filing protests against RELA with the official human rights body.

''The government should immediately stop the deployment of RELA in the raid of migrant workers as they are not professionally trained and accountable to conduct such operations,'' Yap said.

The country's largest labour centre, the Malaysian Trade Union Congress or MTUC has added its weight to censure RELA.

An MTUC investigation showed the Indian nationals were not paid their wages and subsequently not offered any employment, said the union's secretary general G. Rajasekaran.

''The workers have valid work permits and the authorities should be helping them get the wages owed them and not arrest and put them in detention camps,'' Rajasekaran said.

The MTUC has lodged a formal protest with the government urging it to take back the powers given to RELA.

''The move to arm RELA has only increased cases of abuse of power and created a form of vigilantism that has brought about racism and violence,'' said Fernandez.

''There is absolutely no reason to use firearms on unarmed ordinary migrant workers. Their only fault is that they do not hold proper do*****ents ... undo*****ented workers are not criminals,'' she said, adding that the core problem is a lack of policies that were consistent and humanistic towards the estimated three million legal and illegal migrant workers.

NGOs also demand that migrant workers involved in work-related disputes be allowed to stay, work and live in the country until their cases are properly settled. Currently, the status of workers caught in such situations is ambiguous -- some are held at crowded detention centres while others are deported. (END/2006)



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