The Malaysian government has authorized almost half a million RELA volunteers to help maintain public order, primarily through the apprehension of undocumented migrant workers, most of whom come to Malaysia to augment Malaysia’s insufficient labor force. In carrying out their duties, RELA volunteers often employ unnecessary force and illegal policing practices. Fully uniformed, armed, and unaccompanied by police or immigration officers, they break into migrant lodgings in the middle of the night without warrants, brutalize inhabitants, extort money, and confiscate cell phones, clothing, jewelry, and household goods, before handcuffing migrants and transporting them to detention camps for “illegal immigrants...”The International Herald Tribune recently had a feature on the group which reinforces what Human Rights Watch said. Truly, it is a scary exercise in using an unaccountable entity to carry out dubious state objectives:
According to the 2005 amendment to Malaysia’s Essential Regulations, part of Malaysia’s security legislation, RELA is allowed to arrest an individual or enter and search any premises, public or private, without a search or arrest warrant. The amendment also gives RELA volunteers the right to bear and use firearms, and to demand documents. All that is necessary is authorization to conduct a raid from certain RELA officials, including the director general and deputy director general of RELA and other RELA officers appointed by the home affairs minister.
The 2005 amendment also gives effective legal immunity to RELA volunteers. Regulation 16 of the act states: “The Public Protection Authorities Act 1948 shall apply to any action, suit, prosecution or proceedings against … RELA … or any member … in respect of any act, neglect or default done or committed by him in good faith or any omission omitted by him in good faith, in such capacity.”
When his turn comes to stand watch, Kang Long posts himself at a window, peering into the dark streets outside the tiny apartment where his fellow migrant workers sleep 10 to a room. "We always fear, especially at night," he said. "Maybe there will be a raid. Where will we run? I worry for my wife and children. I've been thinking of moving to the jungle."
Kang Long, 43, is an ethnic Chin refugee from Myanmar, one of as many as three million foreign workers whose labor on farms, factories and construction sites and in service industries supports the economy of this bustling Southeast Asian nation. About half are estimated to be here illegally. Like foreign workers elsewhere, they are resented by many local people and demonized by politicians. Here in Malaysia they have become the targets of an expanding campaign of harassment, arrest, whippings, imprisonment and deportation.
To lead this campaign, the government in 2005 transformed a volunteer self-defense corps, created in the 1960s to guard against communists, into a strike force deputized to hunt down illegal immigrants. This force, called Rela, now numbers nearly half a million mostly untrained volunteers - more than the total number of Malaysia's military and police in this nation of 27 million.
Its leaders are armed and have the right to enter a home or search a person on the street without a warrant. By an official count, its uniformed volunteers carry out 30 to 40 raids a night. As it takes over more of the duties of the police and prison officials, Rela is drawing the condemnation of local and foreign human rights groups, which accuse the volunteers, some as young as 16, of violence, extortion, theft and illegal detention.
"They break into migrant lodgings in the middle of the night without warrants, brutalize inhabitants, extort money and confiscate cellphones, clothing, jewelry and household goods, before handcuffing migrants and transporting them to detention camps for illegal immigrants," Human Rights Watch said in a report in May. They often fail to honor legitimate documentation and sometimes destroy documents in order to justify their actions, the human rights group said.
In an interview, Rela's director general, Zaidon Asmuni, dismissed the concerns of human rights groups, saying that the nation's security is at stake and demands an aggressive defense. "We have no more communists at the moment, but we are now facing illegal immigrants," he said. "As you know, in Malaysia illegal immigrants are enemy No. 2." Enemy No. 1, he said, is drugs.
Once undocumented migrants are detained, they face a jail term of up to five years and a whipping of up to six strokes. Some of the migrants, like Kang Long from Myanmar, are refugees registered with the United Nations, but they are caught up in the sweeps as well. Malaysia is not a signatory of the UN refugee convention.
According to the accounts of a dozen migrants in the cramped apartments where they hide, things can get even worse once they are deported. After serving time in a detention center, they say, many are taken to a no man's land near the border with Thailand where human traffickers await their arrival. If they can pay 1,500 ringgit, or about $450, the migrants say, the traffickers will smuggle them back to Kuala Lumpur where the cycle of harassment, potential detention and deportation begins again. If they cannot pay, the migrants say, they may be sold as laborers to fishing boats or forced into the sex trade. Some return years later, the migrants say. Others simply disappear.
Irene Fernandez, a Malaysian who heads a local migrants' rights group called Tenaganita, said victims sometimes call from the border begging for money to pay the traffickers. "It's a conflict for us because we cannot support any form of trafficking," she said. "At the same time, protection of life is equally important." The best she can honorably do, she said, is to notify the immigrant communities in Kuala Lumpur, where people barely have enough money to feed themselves, and hope they can find the means to save their friends.
Terrorized by Rela, many of the migrants have left their apartments in the city and built shacks of leaves and branches in the surrounding jungle. But Rela pursues them here as well, the migrants say. "Some jungle sites are periodically cleared by local authorities, the inhabitants are displaced, valuables taken away and at times shelters are burned to the ground," the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders said in a recent report.
Despite the criticisms, Rela - an acronym for the Malay words for People's Volunteer Corps - has been expanding in numbers and in law enforcement powers over the past two years. As of November, it had screened 156,070 people this year and had detained 30,332 for not having travel documents, according to Home Affairs Minister Radzi Sheikh Ahmad. In a further extension of its powers, the minister announced in November that Rela would take control of the country's 14 immigration detention centers and that the centers themselves would be expanded. [See this article.]
Zaidon, the director general of Rela, said his organization is expanding so fast that it is impossible to train most of the volunteers or to carry out background checks before deputizing them to make arrests. "We cannot train half a million just like that," he said. "It's an ongoing process. It will take time, 5 or 10 years." If Rela members were overly scrupulous about human rights, Zaidon said, they could not do their job. "To stop a person by the roadside, that is also against human rights," he said. "But if you talk about human rights you cannot talk about security."
And so, the Rela volunteers cast a wide net as they stop and search people who look like Asian foreigners. Most migrant workers come from Indonesia, while others come from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Vietnam as well as from Myanmar. In October, the Indonesian government protested when Rela detained an Indonesian student and the wife of an Indonesian diplomat. In both cases, the Indonesian government said, the victims produced documents that were ignored by Rela.
Most of Rela's targets, though, are people like Ndawng Lu, 59, an ethnic Kachin refugee from Myanmar who shares an apartment with 20 other people. Her neighbors fled and she remained alone when Rela made a daytime raid this year, she said. "They shouted at me, 'Where's the money?' " she said. "I got down on my knees and begged them. 'I don't have any money.' But they wanted money. They pulled stuff from under the bed. They looked here, they looked there. They opened all our bags." Her documents were in order, she said, and the search party left her alone. But when it departed, she said, "Everything was a mess."