Police forensic officers handle exhumed human remains in a jungle trafficking camp in Wang Kelian in Malaysia’s northern state of Perlis in May 2015. (Photo: AFP)
They perished way back in 2015 and were buried in unmarked graves in a jungle by their traffickers. Yet five years on, the Rohingya victims of rights abuses and their relatives are still awaiting justice from Malaysia’s government.
That state of affairs is a blot on Malaysia’s image, say international rights activists who are calling on authorities to release the findings of a government-sponsored report on mass graves that were discovered to contain the remains of Rohingya victims of human trafficking from Myanmar and Bangladesh in the village of Wang Kelian in the state of Perlis in the northern part of the country.
“Malaysian citizens and survivors of trafficking deserve access to the final report,” Matthew Smith, chief executive of regional rights group Fortify Rights, said in a newly released statement. “This is a matter of truth, justice and accountability.”
In 2015, Malaysian authorities discovered 139 graves and 29 small illegal detention camps for migrants in a jungle near the village, which lies on Malaysia’s border with Thailand.
The exhumed remains from the graves are believed to have belonged mostly to Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh, and there were suspicions that authorities had been aware of the presence of the illegal detention camps and the graves, which were ascribed to cross-border trafficking syndicates.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) was set up last year by the Malaysian government to investigate the matter, but the investigators’ report has yet to be released, which is a sign that authorities have something to hide, according to Fortify Rights.
“Eyewitness testimonies in the report indicate complicity and direct involvement of state authorities in the transnational trade of Rohingya refugees, including in Malaysia,” says the rights group, which was founded in Myanmar in 2013 to “ensure human rights for all,” according to the group’s mission statement.
It is estimated that between 2012 and 2015 transnational criminal syndicates trafficked at least 170,000 Rohingya migrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh into Malaysia at a profit of US$50-100 million each year. The graves around Wang Kelian likely contained migrants who died or were killed en route, according to rights activists.
Investigators working on Malaysia’s government-sponsored inquiry called 48 witnesses, including Rohingya survivors, during 17 days of hearings in Kuala Lumpur last year. That their findings have not yet been made public means that no justice can be had for the victims of human trafficking in the country, according to activists.
“The RCI was mandated to help bring perpetrators to justice, and that hasn’t happened,” Smith said. “The government must act. There have been no changes in policy and not even a formal public reckoning of the crimes committed.”
Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation with a robust economy, is a popular destination for stateless Rohingya migrants and asylum seekers who were driven from their homes in Myanmar by the Burmese military into neighboring Bangladesh in 2017.
Yet in recent years Malaysia has become less welcoming to Rohingya migrants, who face hostility from locals, various forms of discrimination and frequent police crackdowns on their communities.
Numerous boats from Bangladesh carrying asylum seekers, including women and children, have been turned back by Malaysian authorities in violation of international law. Hundreds of Rohingya asylum seekers are believed to have died at sea this year alone.
At the same time, Malaysian authorities have stepped up their crackdowns on Rohingya and other migrants already in the country, rounding them up in their hundreds at a time, ostensibly to limit the spread of Covid-19 within migrant communities.
Not surprisingly, several rights groups and foreign observers have accused Malaysian authorities of dragging their feet on releasing the findings of the government-sponsored inquiry into the mass graves in Wang Kelian as part of an official cover-up.
“Despite allegations of official complicity in migrant smuggling and trafficking crimes in relation to the 2015 discovery of migrant camps and mass graves in Wang Kelian, containing bodies of suspected Rohingya and Bangladeshi victims of extortion, torture and other crimes, authorities have not brought charges against any Malaysian official or private citizen,” the United States’ Department of State has noted in its latest annual Trafficking in Persons report.
By refusing to release the inquiry’s findings, Malaysian authorities are in violation of their international obligation “to seek and obtain all relevant information concerning the commission of the alleged violation, the fate and whereabouts of the victim and, where appropriate, the process by which the alleged violation was officially authorized,” as per the guidelines of the UN special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence.
Fortify Rights insists that Malaysian authorities are beholden to the victims and their families to account for what really happened in Wang Kelian and who was responsible.
“The Malaysian government should fulfil the right to truth of the Wang Kelian survivors, victims and their relatives under international law and provide them and the general public with the RCI’s full report,” the group says.