Malaysia’s Rohingya Refugee Women’s Theatre Company

Rohingya Theatre Group at Masakini studio 2

The Rohingya Women’s Theatre Company (from L-R) Fatma Husen, 23, Rashida Rafik, 21, and Syedah Husen, 21.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Inside a YMCA gymnasium, an actress takes the stage and the audience goes quiet. Members of Malaysia’s state security forces are in attendance.

The scene set is a family living room. An actress mimes as if to clean. There’s nothing subversive in this scene.

A male actor steps on stage looking upset. He’s playing the woman’s husband. Not a word is spoken between the two until he attempts to hit her. True to the form, the actress falls to the floor clutching her face.

“I’m proof that Rohingya can act,” said the actress Rashida Rafik. “I may not be able to do it on television but I can do it.”

Rafik, 21, is a mother of three. She was married at the age of 13 and pregnant months later. Early childhood marriage is common among the Rohingya.

The United Nations predicts 140 million girls will become child brides between 2011 and 2020. This is more than 14 million girls per year. Fifty of the 140 million are girls under the age of 15.

UNHCR Malaysia estimates there are 230 child brides in the country’s refugee community.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention despite the fact that there are 152,170 registered refugees with estimates of anywhere from 40 to 140,000 unregistered in the country.

Nazim Bashir is community outreach coordinator at Asylum Access Malaysia. He said early childhood marriage and sexual violence in the refugee community is a concern for everyone.

Asylum Access Malaysia teamed up with New York City’s Bond Street Theatre to teach a group from the Rohingya Women’s Development Network about using theatre to raise awareness on refugee women and girls’ issues.

Bond Street Theatre has projects in 40 countries worldwide. The Rohingya Women’s Theatre Company was born in late 2017 with the assistance of Masakini Theatre in Kuala Lumpur.

Rafik considers herself one of the lucky few allowed to attend a charity school. Rohingya, and other refugees, are barred from attending government-run schools in Malaysia.

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Rafik receives advice from Sabera Shaik, founder of Malaysia’s Masakini Theatre Company.

Rafik’s education ended when she got pregnant at 14. UNHCR Malaysia supports 128 informal refugee schools, providing a basic primary level education.

Asylum Access Malaysia states most of these schools are underfunded and under-resourced. They rely solely on volunteer teachers and staff, most from the refugee community itself.

According to the UNHCR, only 50 per cent of refugee children worldwide are enrolled in primary school. Twenty two per cent are in secondary school, while only one per cent is enrolled in tertiary, post-secondary, education.

UNHCR Malaysia’s Education Unit stated in 2016 that among Rohingya school age children in Malaysia, only 39 per cent are receiving primary level instruction. No other level exists for them.

“I will never allow my daughter to be married young,” said Rafik. “I want my kids to have a bright future; to have their human rights and complete their education. Once they complete their education hopefully they can be better people.”

Back at the YMCA, the actor and Rafik yell at each other in Bahasa Malaysia, a language she and over 31 million others speak in this country. Rafiq was raised in Kuala Lumpur and calls herself Malaysian.

The first scene comes to an end. Rafik receives a round of applause. Enter Syedah Husen, 21, another Rohingya actress and former child bride.

Husen was married at 15. Her family escaped Myanmar and came to Malaysia in 2001. But neither she nor her older sister was allowed to attend primary school.

“I don’t want my children to be like me, I got married very young. I have no brains because I never went to school. I want my daughter to study until she’s older and she can choose what she wants to do,” Husen said.

The only way to stop early childhood marriage and early childbirth in Malaysia’s Rohingya refugee community is to increase girls’ access to education. These issues extend beyond Malaysia and into Myanmar and Bangladesh, where the majority of Rohingya live.

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The Rohingya refugee actresses share a moment after the production.

The Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives provided assistance to the Rohingya Women’s Development Network to establish the Rohinyga Women’s Theatre Company.

The Canadian High Commission in Malaysia states the funds are an effort to increase women and girls’ access to information and decrease dependency on humanitarian assistance.

“People in Myanmar are not educated. And in Malaysia you can only get a basic education,” said Sharifah Husain, founder of Malaysia’s Rohingya Women’s Development Network.

“As humans we have human rights. I want our people to know what we deserve. I want our people to know our rights. I want our people to stand up for these rights.”

Husain, 24, was born in Myanmar. Her family fled 20 years ago to Kuala Lumpur after an attack on her village. Husain has spent the last decade of her life educating women and children in Malaysia’s Rohingya refugee community.

“We are facing all these issues because we’re not recognized as refugees here,” Husain said. “We don’t have any basic rights. We can’t go to school. We don’t have proper access to medical care. We can’t do anything here until they recognize us.”

Back on stage, Husen and her actor husband sit beside each other, as if at a dinner table. They begin to argue and the crowd is amused.

“It’s a good way to educate them. Through theatre they can really understand,” Husen said. “When I’m at home I practice in the mirror and my daughter mimics me.”

The play comes to an end. There’s a standing ovation as the actors take a bow. A narrator shares information on where refugee women and girls can go to seek help in the community.

A 15-year-old Rohingya mother in the crowd, with a baby on her lap, asks not to be named. Malaysia’s state security officers stand up to leave.

“I didn’t know we could act. I’ve never seen this kind of performance. My friends are doing a good job. This is a good thing,” said the 15-year-old mother.

Off stage both Rafik and Husen are treated like celebrities as family and friends line up to request photographs with them.

“It’s very effective when our community is seeing the violence that is happening. They think this is our culture. This is what we’ve been doing since being born and this is not a problem,” said Sharifah Husain.

“With theatre we make them see what the reality is. They open their eyes. They’re willing to accept. You entertain the people and at the same time you’re educating them,” Husain added.

In Myanmar, Rohingya women have survived unimaginable violence and now live in Bangladesh refugee camps receiving humanitarian assistance. In Malaysia, Rohinyga refugee women refuse to be victimized any longer and are now educating each other on their options.

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Malaysia: A Refugee Conundrum

British Ceremonial Arts

Heidy Quah, 23, receives the Queen’s Young Leaders Award in 2017 (British Ceremonial Arts)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – “People always ask me, why are you helping refugees when there are people, here at home, who need help?

“This is home for refugees”, said Heidy Quah, recipient of the 2017 Queen’s Young Leaders Award for her work co-founding Malaysia’s Refuge for the Refugees.

Quah, aged 23 years, founded the Kuala Lumpur-based educational organisation with a friend in secondary school after hearing that the informal refugee school they were teaching English at would no longer be able to provide education to its students due to a lack of funding.

“These kids were being robbed of their only access to education”, Quah said. “That’s how Refuge for Refugees started as a project to tackle the issues of one school. But as we continued, we realised Malaysians weren’t aware of the plight of refugees.”

Refugees without the status

Many Malaysians are not able to discern the difference between refugees and illegal migrant workers. This is because the government does not make this distinction.

Malaysia is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or its 1967 amended protocol. It does not recognise the rights of refugees under international law.

The number of unregistered refugees varies widely according to reports. Asylum Access Malaysia, a refugee rights organisation, states there can be anywhere from 40 000 to 140 000 unregistered refugees in the country. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, has registered 152 170 refugees in Malaysia.

According to Asylum Access Malaysia, roughly 90% of Malaysia’s refugee population is Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority group from western Myanmar—formerly known as Burma—that has been deprived of citizenship since its independence in 1948.

In Malaysia, there is no way to determine if more Rohingya are arriving to date. Over the past 5 years human traffickers and smugglers have brought many Rohingya and other refugees by boat from Myanmar or Bangladesh towards Malaysia.

It is unknown how many have died at sea or are being held in Malaysian immigration detention centres, where conditions have been described by the Malaysian national human rights commission as “torture-like”.

UNHCR found that at least 24 refugees and asylum seekers died inside these detention centres from 2015 to 2017, The Guardian reported in May, 2017. A 2014 Al Jazeera investigation exposed that Malaysia detained children with their parents within these detention centres, in disagreement with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 2015, the so-called boat crisis gripped Malaysia. The government, alongside Thailand and Indonesia, sealed its borders temporarily, effectively blocking access to an estimated 6000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi stranded on boats after being abandoned at sea by smugglers.

The Malaysian Government later allowed the refugees to enter the country after a public outcry.

Deepa Nambiar, director of Asylum Access Malaysia, says many in Malaysia are expecting Rohingya refugees fleeing the squalid camps of Myanmar and Bangladesh to reach the country.

An estimated 650 000 Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar’s alleged army clearance operations to refugee camps in Bangladesh. Nambiar says an influx of displaced people can be expected this year when strong winds on the Andaman sea become less of an obstacle.

Access to education and health

The biggest challenge for refugees is accessing education, health care, and livelihoods. Most do not have any form of documentation. They often face harassment from authorities and must pay bribes to police for minor infractions such as not carrying proper identification or visas.

Registration with UNHCR gives refugees access to an UNHCR card. For most refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia, this is their only form of identification.

With this card, children can receive an education. The UNHCR in Malaysia runs what it calls a “parallel school system”, supporting 128 informal refugee schools teaching at a basic primary level. But it is under-resourced and underfunded, relying on donations and volunteers, mostly from faith-based organisations or charities.

“The quality of education is low. Syllabuses are incredibly inconsistent. It’s very community-based,” said Nambiar.

The UNHCR card also allows refugees to receive 50% off medical bills in Malaysia.

A UNHCR card for a 24-year-old Rohingya refugee in Malaysia

The UNHCR card of a 24-year-old Rohingya refugee from Myanmar

But they are charged the rate that is paid by non-nationals at hospitals; as such, out-of-pocket expenses remain prohibitive for most refugees. Charitable organisations such as the International Catholic Migration Commission and Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation offer free health-care service to refugees but often operate within a legal grey area.

The 2014 Al Jazeera investigation also uncovered UNHCR Malaysia staff translators selling fake refugee cards on the black market. This led to an internal investigation.

The UNHCR Malaysia office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

Calling Malaysia a home

A refugee repatriation deal struck between Bangladesh and Myanmar, once implemented, will mean Rohingya refugees will be sent back to Rakhine State, with no assurances from either the UN or Myanmar’s army that its alleged crackdown against militants and civilians will cease.

Rohingya refugees in Malaysia fear the country might want to do the same in the future.

Malaysia could be an attractive destination for Rohingya. Although the country does not offer a solution to their statelessness, Malaysian refugees are not subjected to violent persecution by the state. There’s an established Rohingya community and refugee schools are free for children. Whereas Malaysia is officially secular, Islam is its official religion.

Many Rohingya find informal work in Malaysia, in what is called by Nambiar the three D jobs: dirty, demeaning, and dangerous. They can find work as cleaners, on construction sites and plantations, or in factories.

“Exploitation within the workforce is very high. There’s no security”, said Nambiar. Knowing there are no legal implications or recourse for these actions, Malaysian employers can refuse payment to refugees or terminate their employment without notice or severance.

A pilot project started by the Malaysian Government and supported by the UNHCR has allowed 300 Rohingya refugees to begin work in the plantation sector. Implementing this project on a wider scale in other sectors could one day provide refugees with official work permits, which could help address Rohingya families’ needs for identification.

“It does feel there is some room opening up for formal employment in Malaysia. It remains to be seen how it is implemented”, said Nambiar.

In 2017, UNHCR Malaysia announced a 5-year community-based protection strategy to “increase its engagement with refugee communities and diverse stakeholders, including those from Kuala Lumpur who have had limited access with UNHCR in the past, to effectively address vulnerabilities and safeguard protection space for refugees”.

“The next 5-year plan is to see the landscape of refugees change in Malaysia, where we stop depending on UNHCR”, Quah said. “We [will] start empowering civil society organisations on the ground to be self-sustainable.”

“I think there’s a lot of attention that can be had about Rohingya in Malaysia. It’s a developing country and so [people say] ‘Rohingya here are fine’, but they really aren’t”, Nambiar said. “But more than in many other countries, Rohingya here are seen with a very sympathetic lens.”

For Quah, the first step to changing the perception of refugees in Malaysia is to educate them and make them feel that this is home.

Refuge for the Refugees now supports ten informal schools in Malaysia. Over the past 5 years, it has helped to educate 1875 refugee children in Malaysia and has expanded into Myanmar.

Because secondary education is not an option for most refugee youth after finishing primary classes, Refuge for the Refugees is looking to begin vocational skills training, starting with baking classes, so they can learn new skills and earn income. A welfare fund will be set up by UNHCR to assist groups helping refugees, according to Quah.

This was achieved in a country where refugees are still not allowed to officially work or study. Quah says that most of these students now contribute to the economy and public life in Malaysia. She now wants her country to recognise them.

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Malaysia’s Rohingya Network – CBC The World this Weekend

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – The Rohingya community in Malaysia is trying to help fellow Rohingya who’ve recently fled their homes in Myanmar to live in refugee camps in Bangladesh.

The Rohingya in Malaysia view themselves as the lucky ones. They’re viewed as illegal migrants, not refugees, but they’re essentially allowed to contribute to society and earn an income — illegally.

This allows them — especially women — to send aid to women and children now living in Bangladesh’s camps. This story aired on CBC The World this Weekend Saturday, December 2, 2017.

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One Rohingya’s struggle to empower women in Malaysia

Sharifah Husain is the founder of Rohingya Women's Development Network in Malaysia

Sharifah Husain has spent the last decade educating her community’s most vulnerable women and children

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Tucked away upstairs at a shopping plaza in this city’s north end is a small storefront turned classroom for dozens of Rohinyga women and children.

The sound of these women reciting English phrases, laughing and the occasional cries of kids can be heard in the stairwell.

Its founder, Sharifah Husain, 24, said she wanted to do something to help women and children in her community, who are not allowed to work or study in Malaysia.

“I noticed we didn’t have a Rohingya women’s organisation that was standing up for women – to be the voice of women,” Husain said.

Husain comes from Buthidaung village in Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state. Her father fled to Malaysia when she was five-years old, fearing for his life. Husain was left behind with her mother and two younger siblings.

The village was attacked soon afterward, so Husain’s mother took them to Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar – then known as Burma.

Her recollection of the traumatic moment when a local mob attacked her village is hazy. It took place almost 20 years ago.

But it mirrors the accounts of Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh, who’ve recently fled the Myanmar’s army clearance operations and local Buddhist mobs.

“My mother was arrested in Yangon and sentenced to prison for not having official [identification or travel] documents,” Husain recounted. “This left me in charge.”

Husain can’t remember how long she spent in Yangon, but she said she was separated from her siblings and sent north to Mandalay and forced into servitude.

She spoke to her father in Malaysia, over the phone, and he agreed to pay human traffickers to bring Husain and her siblings to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city. All three, including Husain, were smuggled by land, into Thailand and Malaysia.

At that time the Southeast Asia trafficking route wasn’t as defined as it is today. Human trafficking groups in Bangladesh and Thailand now make a lot of money off of poor, desperate refugees fleeing war and violence in Myanmar.

Today, the concern faced by the Malaysia government is if it recognises its refugees then that could send a signal to more to make the perilous journey, now taken by sea from Myanmar and Bangladesh to sanctuary in Malaysia, where they don’t face violent persecution.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, states there are 152,170 registered refugees in Malaysia. The majority are Rohingya, displaced from their homes in Myanmar, like Husain.

But the amount of unregistered refugees varies widely from 40,000 to 140,000, according to Asylum Access Malaysia.

“The big question is – when are the boats going to come? There’s no indication they will now, but there’s definitely a high possibility that they will. And once new groups arrive, that complicates [the] situation,” said Deepa Nambiar, Asylum Access Malaysia director.

UNHCR runs what it calls a “parallel school system” for refugees in Malaysia, allowing children to access basic, primary-level education.

Refugee groups and local faith-based organisations fund these schools, staffed by volunteers. One-hundred and twenty-eight informal refugee schools in Malaysia access funding from the UN. It provides education to 7,154 children, according to UNHCR.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Office states 16,809 Rohingya refugee children are registered with UNHCR. This means about 10,000, or more, refugee children in Malaysia are unable to access any form of education.

A dozen or so more informal refugee schools exist but rely solely on donations and are understaffed, said Asylum Access.

“To live in Malaysia, yes you can live, but you don’t have a future. You are in a box. You can’t go out of the box,” Husain said.

Husain has received no formal education in Malaysia. This is remarkable considering her drive to educate refugee women and children. Malaysians are supporting Rohingya Women’s Development Network by volunteering as teachers and support staff.

Rohinyga Women’s Development Network started officially last year. But Husain has spent the last decade educating her community’s most vulnerable women and children in their own homes.

“I have built up a trust. The men especially trust me. They feel safe sending their wives to our centre because they know me,” Husain said.

Word has spread and more refugee families are now attending Rohingya Women’s Development Network classes, where they receive English-language instruction, leadership training and brand new self-defence classes.

“We want to stop domestic violence. We want to stop child marriages in the community. We want to build up women’s empowerment,” Husain said. “We really need the Malaysia government to recognise us.”

Husain is trying to change the mentality in the Rohingya and wider refugee community in Malaysia, that women and girls can’t study, work, or earn an income. She receives some funding from UNHCR to run programmes but uses her own money to keep them going.

“Of course I have support from my family. My father is my hero. My husband is my hero. Both of these men have really pushed me forward,” Husain added.

The Rohingya Women’s Development Network has teamed up with Asylum Access Malaysia on a refugee theatre project. This will allow refugee women to educate the community on issues of sexual violence.

“What I think is so innovative about Sharifah and the team is that when we were discussing this project they said ‘we need to get men involved’,” Nambiar said.

Thumbs up by Sharifah Husain after class at Rohingya Women's Development Network

Thumbs up to students after class

Husain is appealing to others in the refugee community to support initiatives set up by the Malaysia government and civil society groups to help Rohingya women and children displaced in Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

Malaysia is setting up a new 50-bed field hospital for refugees in Bangladesh. The European Rohingya Council (ERC) runs two camp clinics.

ERC’s Malaysia Ambassador Tengku Emma Zuriana works closely with the Rohingya Women’s Development Network helping refugee women in Malaysia and Bangladesh.

“I am trying to build an orphanage in Bangladesh to protect the children exposed to child trafficking,” Zuriana said. “We are trying to fundraise to build a proper orphanage with a school inside. They will be protected and receive education.”

To raise awareness of the plight of Rohingya women and children fleeing the atrocities in Myanmar to Bangladesh, the Rohingya Women’s Development Network is selling beaded jewelry made during class.

Despite the Malaysian government’s commitment to provide vital aid and healthcare to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, some in Malaysia say they’re also desperate and in need.

To improve the situation, Malaysia has launched a pilot project giving jobs to selected refugees. This, refugees hope, will pave the pathway to citizenship in Malaysia.

“It’s no different. In Myanmar they have been suffering. When they are outside of Myanmar, they come to Malaysia and expect something better. Things are not getting better,” Husain said. “They just escape death. But they’re still suffering here because they don’t have any rights.”

Asylum Access Malaysia’s director Deepa Nambiar said Rohingya refugees in Malaysia do receive a lot of sympathy, but not enough is done to help them integrate or assimilate.

“If we can be in a place where Rohingya women are educated, aware of their options, empowered to speak out, engage with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and partners [and] the government,” Nambiar said. “We have the right environment to do it in Malaysia.”

Husain said she believes the true function of Rohingya Women’s Development Network is to educate the community on its history – where it comes from and why it has been displaced all over Southeast Asia, and the world.

“We cannot destroy our [own] identity. If we do that, it’s very easy for Myanmar to say ‘they are really Bengali,’ I’m not Bengali!” Husain exclaimed.

“The younger generation needs to know who we are so we can fight for our rights.”


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Malaysia: Rohingya must be consulted before repatriation

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Rohingya groups hold a press conference at MAPIM in Shah Alam, Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – A Rohingya repatriation deal is being hailed as a “first step” by the Bangladesh government, but many argue the plan is premature.

Myanmar’s Rakhine state is the ancestral home for Muslim-majority Rohingya, but those living there face discrimination, violence, and segregation. Human rights group Amnesty International calls it a “system of apartheid”.

The repatriation deal does not take Rohingya refugees’ rights into consideration, said the European Rohingya Council (ERC). Its Malaysia ambassador, Tengku Emma Zuriana, has spoken out against it.

“This repatriation process should not proceed until the safety of the Rohingya [can be] ensured,” she said.

Malaysia is home to about 150,000 Rohingya. Several non-government organisations held a press conference here on Thursday to discuss the repatriation plan.

The United Nations and United States have stated the violent actions taken by Myanmar’s armed forces and “local vigilantes” amount to ethnic cleansing against its Rohingya minority.

“This must be a voluntary process, in safety and dignity, and for them to return to their homes – not into camps. And if there’s any loss of property and life, it must be compensated fairly,” Zuriana said.

Malaysian civil society groups and faith-based organisations urged the Myanmar government to end the violence, and to ensure the safety of the Rohingya living in Rakhine state before any repatriation process begins.

The Malaysia Consultative Council of Islamic Organisation (MAPIM) said any repatriation deal must include protection and compensation for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who’ve lost everything amid the heavy-handed “security clearance” operation.

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MAPIM President Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid speaks to reporters

“Even if the agreement has been finalised, we strongly call on the UN to ensure safe passage for the Rohingya to return back to their homes,” said MAPIM President Mohd Azmi Abdul Hamid.

He went on to ask the international community and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN): “What repatriation are they planning to implement when the Rohingya’s’ lives are totally destroyed?”

Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM) wanted to remind Bangladesh of past Rohingya repatriations to Myanmar.

“[An] estimated 240,000 Rohingya were repatriated by the Bangladesh government under the 1978 agreement, which had a six month time limit. After that, Bangladesh repatriated about 236,000 Rohingya until 2005 under the 1992 agreement,” noted MERHROM President Zafar Ahmad.

In 2012, Myanmar’s armed forces began to force Rohingya into refugee camps, both in Rakhine state and across the border into Bangladesh.

Recent attacks on a police outpost in Rakhine state by the armed group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) sparked the latest army crackdown. More than 600,000 Rohingya fled their homes into Bangladesh’s refugee camps.

MERHROM wants the UN Security Council to conduct an assessment of the situation in Rakhine state, to ensure military operations against Rohingya have ceased.

Myanmar Armed Forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing has said the Rohingya could return only if they are “real citizens”.

The UN said on Friday the time wasn’t right for a Rohingya return.

“At present, conditions in Myanmar’s Rakhine state are not in place to enable safe and sustainable returns. Refugees are still fleeing, and many have suffered violence, rape, and deep psychological harm,” said Adrian Edwards, a spokesperson for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“It is critical that returns do not take place precipitously or prematurely, without the informed consent of refugees or the basic elements of lasting solutions in place,” he added.

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and Malaysia agree they must be consulted.

“Until the Myanmar government is serious to improve the situation, the Bangladesh government should not agree to any repatriation plan,” Zuriana said.

“The European Rohingya Council is calling [on] Myanmar authorities to grant full citizenship to the Rohingya and review the [1982] citizenship law.”

ERC called on the international community to send a clear message to Myanmar that it will not tolerate any further violence. It also said it wants to see the UN observe, support, and monitor all investigations into human rights violations.

Humanitarian agencies providing aid and medical services to the Rohingya in Rakhine state are not allowed to access secured areas, where those most affected need urgent help.

Until unhindered access is granted to aid agencies in Rakhine by the Myanmar government, refugee and civil society groups in Malaysia will continue to voice opposition to any agreement, they said.

The concern is Myanmar will force returning Rohingya into displacement camps and settlement zones protected by the same armed forces guilty of carrying out attacks them.

“They don’t have the freedom to go back home,” Zuriana said.


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Malaysia: A Rohingya safe haven?

Arifa Sultana on air at RVision

Arifa Sultana, is a 23-year-old Rohingya journalist now based in Malaysia after fleeing Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Inside a television studio a small team of four prepare the daily news bulletin featuring horrendous stories of rape, murder, forced exile, and the lack of an international response to these crimes.

But this is no ordinary television news station. It’s fully staffed by Rohingya refugees broadcasting online, sharing news and information from Myanmar, Bangladesh and beyond. It’s essentially refugee TV, brought to you from studios in Malaysia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Sitting at the news anchor desk is Arifa Sultana, a 23-year-old Rohingya journalist. Her family fled from Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state to Bangladesh a mere 11 months after her birth in 1994.

Myanmar’s government has deprived the Rohingya of citizenship since 1982. But as Azeem Ibrahim points out in his book The Rohingyas: Inside Myanmar’s Hidden Genocide, the campaign to exclude them as an official minority group began with Burma’s founding 1947 constitution.

Generations of Rohingya have been rendered stateless, and it seems a concerted effort to force them out of their homes and into squalid refugee camps has been undertaken by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces.

The Tatmadaw argues it is doing “security clearance” in northern Rakhine state, and has issued its own report denying any wrongdoing since these operations began following attacks by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25.

“Everybody knows that we are Rohingya but when it comes to documentation, there’s no legal proof,” Sultana told Al Jazeera. “This is the biggest challenge I’m facing now.”

Three years ago, Sultana came to Malaysia before the country temporarily sealed its borders to refugees fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2015.

Sultana wanted to continue her studies, and possibly attend a college. She quickly ran into the problem all Rohingya refugees do – the lack of necessary documentation to allow her to study legally in Malaysia.

“I’m sure there are many Rohingya like me who are more talented and educated,” Sultana said. “They have a lot of capability and potential but this is a restriction for them.”

Sultana turned to journalism. She began volunteering when she was 19-years old at Rohingya Vision TV, known as RVision to its staff and audience. It broadcasts in Rohingya, English and Arabic.

Arifa Sultana live at RVision

Arifa Sultana, 23, is afraid to leave Malaysia fearing she won’t be allowed to return

Sultana has been offered many opportunities to travel outside of Malaysia for professional journalism training, but she fears that she will not be allowed to return.

“When I started working here I was very emotional hearing all these stories. But now it’s part of my daily work schedule,” she said. “Thankfully, I have some senior editors who’ve guided me along the way.”

Ziaur Rahman, 24, is the Rohingya community’s most outspoken advocate in the country. He’s discussed the crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya directly with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak three times.

“In Malaysia, we are not getting any protection, were not getting any support from NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. We don’t have any rights,” Rahman said.

Refugees in Malaysia have no legal status, so they can’t officially work or attend government-run schools. But Malaysia has allowed space for a “parallel school system”, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

These informal primary schools around Malaysia are set up and run by the refugee community itself, or faith-based organisations. The UNHCR directly supports 120 of these refugee schools.

There are 150,000 Rohingya refugees registered with the UNHCR in Malaysia. Some refugee children as old as 18 attend primary level classes.

The Prime Minister’s Office said there are 16,809 Rohingya children carrying UNHCR cards, essentially allowing them and family members a discount on medical services at hospitals in Malaysia.

Rohingya Society Malaysia (RSM) is the only refugee community group recognised by the UNHCR. Its President Bo Min Naing said there are nearly 40,000 Rohingya still unregistered.

Sultana and Rahman say the UNHCR card doesn’t provide any security or legality in Malaysia. Refugees often work illegally to provide for their families.

Malaysia has no intention to help refugees assimilate or study in government-run schools, fearing more will come. It’s providing vital aid to Rohingyas displaced in Myanmar and Bangladesh, but refugees argue nothing is being done to help those in Malaysia.

“The UN is doing a lot for us, but it’s not doing enough,” Sultana said. “Even after getting the card you’re liable to be harassed on the road [by authorities]. If you have no education and your children cannot receive education, what is the point of having a [UNHCR] card?”

RSM has supported 126 students since 2009 at its informal Rohingya Learning Centre. Despite its limitation of only three volunteer teachers, it hopes to one day be able to go beyond basic primary education and offer secondary-level classes.

“Our children need education,” said Bo Min Naing. “We need to have the opportunity to send our children to the government school until we are able to provide it.”

Rahman said he will speak about the necessity of improving refugee education next time he meets with Malaysia’s prime minister. Sultana said she feels responsible for Rohingyas’ lack of education and voice in the international community.

This is why she loves working as a journalist, reaching her audience online, where many Rohingya refugees have turned to learn about the fate of their loved ones.

“We are denied all human rights. We have no legal documentation. I feel that if I don’t raise [this issue], people will not come to help us solve it,” she said.


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Thailand: No Internet Freedom with new Computer Crime Act

Free Pai Dao Din KK

A member of Dao Din wears a t-shirt that reads: “Free Pai” in Khon Kaen

BANGKOK, Thailand – The sound of cicadas spread as the sun sets in the northeastern city of Khon Kaen.

Payu Boonsophon, 23, stares down at his smart phone. He hesitates before beginning to type a message on Facebook. He knows his online activity is being monitored by Thai authorities.

“We will meet outside of the courthouse,” he writes in Thai.

Seven members of Dao Din, a group of law students at Khon Kaen University, stand accused of contempt of court for staging a rally in support of “Pai Dao Din,” Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, outside of the local courthouse.

Boonpattararaksa was sentenced to prison in Khon Kaen last August. His crime was sharing a BBC Thai story online about the new king on his Facebook page.

The court found him guilty of violating both lese-majeste, or royal defamation, and the amended Computer Crime Act. He received a two-and-a-half year prison sentence.

During a visit to Khon Kaen by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Boonpattararaksa became a target of the junta for wearing a t-shirt that read: ‘No to coup d’etat.’

“You can see that he developed his role in politics. With the attention that you have from the public, is also attention from authorities. His Facebook was monitored closely,” said Anon Chawalawan, documentation officer at iLaw, a legal watchdog in Bangkok.

Royal defamation

Article 112 of Thailand’s criminal code states defaming any member of the royal family could land someone up to 15 years in prison.

Following the death of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the number of Thais charged with lese-majeste has risen. Since the 2014 coup the number of investigations has doubled compared to the past 12 years, states the UN.

Only four per cent of those charged with lese-majeste have been acquitted.

“There was a witch hunt. Some people made comments on Facebook regarding the death of the late king. Some were hunted down if they made a negative comment,” Chawalawan said. “They were forced to apologize to the king’s picture and taken to the police [station]. In some cases there was physical abuse.”

The junta amended the Computer Crime Act last year to take this draconian law online. Now anybody posting, sharing or liking something on social media can be charged with lese-majeste in Thailand.

Thai civil society groups say the new Computer Crime Act has led to censorship.

“[The case of Pai Dao Din] is an example of how this law has been abused to undermine opponents of the government,” said Dr. Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a former Thai diplomat now living and teaching in Kyoto, Japan.

The Thai junta has even gone so far as to revoke Chachavalpongpun’s passport because of his prolific writing and online activity denouncing military rule in Thailand.

Thais have been warned against following, sharing or liking anything from three anti-junta dissidents, including Chachavalpongpung. It has stated anybody caught doing so can be arrested and charged under the Computer Crime Act.

“This law should be cancelled because it does not follow human rights principles,” Boonsophon said, as he set his smart phone on the table in front of him.

Democracy restoration

“They try to control social media because they know it can empower Thai people. In Thailand, so many people use Facebook. For the people who call for human rights and democracy, social media is very important for us,” said Kate Jangrew, a student at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

Kate Jangrew at Thammasat

Pro-democracy activist Kate Jangrew at Thammasat University in Bangkok

Jangrew, 24, is a founding member of Democracy Restoration Group. She has been arrested and charged three times for organizing protests against the junta. She fears being arrested for simply liking a post on Facebook that could be deemed lese-majeste. Earlier this year, the junta informed Jangrew that she was being monitored.

“In my lifetime already there have been two coups. The first was 10 years ago. The second was three years ago. The military cannot give democracy to the people. They cannot make a good life for Thai people,” she said.

Any day now the coronation of the new Thai king, Maha Vajiralongkorn, will take place at the royal palace in Bangkok.

“We can definitely see that the new King could place Thailand at a critical juncture for its politics. What this man will do as the new sovereign could impact whether elections will happen soon. Monarchy still has a veto over military,” said noted Thai political analyst, Dr. Paul Chambers, a professor at Naresuan University.

Despite countless raids and arrests of Dao Din and Democracy Restoration Group members, Boonsophon and Jangrew both say they won’t be intimidated to stop their calls for a return to democracy in Thailand.

In the meantime, both will continue to defy laws they deem unjust and call for immediate elections. A new day will dawn in Thailand once the sun rises and the cicadas go quiet.

Published @Medium

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