Myanmar refugees wretched in Malaysia

(AP) – Living in miserable camps not far from the glittering Petronas Twin Towers, Myanmar refugees in Malaysia are some of the most wretched of the hundreds of thousands who have fled their homeland.

"We are living here like prisoners, we cannot go out anywhere because we are frightened," says 35-year-old James Munerlian, a Christian pastor from Myanmar's Chin state who fled persecution by the military regime.

Munerlian is the leader of a 100-strong group of men, women and children who live a precarious existence in a secret encampment in one of the patches of jungle that still remain among Kuala Lumpur's suburbs. The half-hour trek there takes a visitor past an almost completed luxury housing project, over hilly and mosquito-infested terrain, through an illegal rubbish dump and across a riverbed reeking with sewage.

In a clearing, the Chin refugees huddle into eight huts made with sheets of zinc and cardboard, and draped with pieces of plastic. They escaped Myanmar on foot in the hope of finding a better life, but instead are exploited by unscrupulous employers and harassed by Malaysia's controversial volunteer security corps which hunts down illegal migrants.

Michael Boak Tun Thang, a 26-year-old farmer from northern Chin state, came to Malaysia in early 2006 and has been hiding in various jungle camps ever since. "The junta came to my village with rifles. Because there were only a few men, they ordered all the boys and also the women to become porters and carry their foods and boxes," he says.

"They raped all the women, even my sister, but I could not do anything. We carried the heavy things but they never paid us or gave us any meals." Late one night, Tun Thang was freed by men from a nearby village, but the last time he saw his sister she was a walking skeleton and he has not heard from her since.

Refugee advocates say the camp is just one of hundreds in the capital and around the country that have sprung up in patches of jungles, near agricultural plantations and on the fringes of coastal villages. Some luckier ones have managed to find cheap housing, and live packed a dozen to a room.

"Malaysia has become one of the worst places for Burmese asylum seekers because of the way the government and its enforcers have brutalised and abused refugees," says Debbie Stothard from human rights group Altsean Burma. "Large groups of refugees are in hiding around the country and they are penniless and desperate," she adds, using Myanmar's former name.

United States data in 2006 listed Myanmar as the world's third largest source of refugees after Afghanistan and Iraq, with at least 700,000 people having fled the country. "Ten years ago, Burmese refugees were unheard of in most Asian countries with the exception of Thailand which shares a very porous border with the country," Stothard says.

"But today, the situation is so bad that there are large numbers of refugees escaping to China, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. "Many of these refugees end up being illegal migrants because the Burmese government does not provide passports to most of its people and refuses to recognise them as citizens if they leave the country illegally."

The Malaysian government says there are about 25,644 Myanmar asylum-seekers in the country but refugee groups believe the real figure is more than double that. The majority are Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar's Rakhine state while the rest are Christian Chins, Karens and Shan.

In the Chin jungle camp, they knew nothing of the massive September street protests, led by Buddhist monks, in Myanmar's main city Yangon which were violently suppressed by the regime, triggering international outrage. Chin Refugee Centre coordinator Paul Lian says most Myanmar refugees in Malaysia work illegally on building sites or plantations and face beatings, extortion and exploitation from employers.

"The groups are in very bad shape as they have no money, no food and fear for their safety," he says, adding that as they have no rights they are either not paid at all or given a pittance. Another camp dweller, 43-year-old Peter Thant Tum who has been on the run for the past three years, just wants a chance at leading a normal life.

"If the Malaysia government has consideration, please give us legal documents and allow us to work, to earn money and eat, our lives will be more happy," he says.