A Decade-long Struggle of Chin Refugees in Malaysia: Interview with CRC Coordinator
16 February 2011: Today marks the decennial anniversary of the formation of Chin Refugee Committee (CRC) in Malaysia. As a community-based organisation, CRC has been engaged in working for and dealing with various issues facing Chin refugees from Burma stranded in Malaysia for over the past ten years.
Chin people started leaving their homeland in search of safety and refuge in other neighbouring countries including Malaysia due to an ongoing human rights abuses and various forms of repressive measures inflicted upon them by Burma’s military dictatorship.
In this interview, an outgoing CRC’s Coordinator Kennedy Lalram Lian talked about the works of CRC over a decade, its history and current as well as future operations and services provided in response to various problems facing the Chin refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia.
Chinland Guardian: Tell us about when and how Chin Refugee Committee (CRC) was founded?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: Chin Refugee Committee (CRC) was founded on 16 February 2001 in order to assist Chin refugees in their pursuit of safety and protection in Malaysia. Since the 1990s, Chin people started entering Malaysia in order to find refuge as they were forced to leave their homeland. In 2000, it was estimated that there were more than 5,000 Chins living in Malaysia without knowing how to seek legal protection from the UNHCR.
Being aware of the Chin refugees’ situation in Malaysia, Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) based in Canada and Chin National Front (CNF) took initiatives in finding a way out for the Chins in Malaysia. Thus, Dr. Sui Khar, Minister of Foreign Affairs (CNF) and Salai Cung Bik Ling, representing CHRO, approached the UNHCR in Geneva in 2001. With the advice from the UNHCR Headquarters in Geneva, Salai Cung Bik Ling was commissioned to study the refugees’ situation in Malaysia and the possibility of approaching the UNHCR in Malaysia in January 2001. This mission received a positive response from Malaysia UNHCR.
CHRO, therefore, sent Salai Bawi Lian Mang to meet with the UNHCR officials. With the help of the UNHCR in Canada in making an appointment with the UNHCR in Malaysia and financial assistance from Chin Women Group in Canada, Salai Bawi Lian Mang arrived in Malaysia on 10 January 2001. Accompanied by Rev. Za Thio (the then Pastor of Chin Christian Fellowship), Salai Bawi Lian Mang knocked the door of the UNHCR for the first time on 13 February 2001.
According to Salai Bawi Lian Mang’s report on his trip to Malaysia, the UNHCR opened its door to Chin refugees on 13 February 2001 and the Chins started to approach the UNHCR on 14 February 2001. The number of refugees approaching the UNHCR increased consequently. As the situation compelled, an informal community-based organization called Chin Refugee Committee (CRC) was formed in Kuala Lumpur to start providing social services and other necessary assistance to the Chin refugees.
Chinland Guardian: How does CRC work now and what are its operations?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: As a community-based organization, CRC works to provide social services and promote the protection of Chin refugees in Malaysia under the guidance of the UNHCR. It also assists and facilitates the operation of the UNHCR across Malaysia concerning Chin issues.
As an office, CRC has nine departments such as Registration, Information, Office Management Unit, Protection and Intervention, Healthcare, Employment, Women and Children Care Unit, Social and Public Relation Unit, and Embassy and Mission.
In the formation state, CRC volunteers visited to the jungle camps to assist the Chin refugee who were hiding in the deep jungles to escape from so called RELA and immigration. Foods and medicines were donated to the needy in the camps. Health care teams were invited to reach the camps. Second-hand clothes were distributed. Name lists were taken to submit to UNHCR office. Many were registered by the UNHCR in those jungle camps.
The main role of CRC is solely to provide voluntary services to and for the Chin refugees. Arrestees are brought out of the lockup by hook or by crook. Detainees are visited and provided personal needs for free. The volunteers prepare detainees’ name list and submitted to the UNHCR requesting for their intervention and release. CRC visits patients in various hospitals and grants them small aids. Patients’ reports are submitted to the UNHCR for further assistance. Single mothers with children who have no options are provided accommodation and foods at CRC Women Children Care shelters. Besides, CRC is running a shelter for HIV patients.
CRC volunteers try to reach out the Chin communities and refugees wherever they get stranded in Malaysia. Accompanying the ACTS medical team, CRC has a chance to make visits to refugees who are in remote areas such as Cameron Highlands, Penang, Johor and Melaka on the regular basis. Other communities are visited to share with the current UNHCR programmes, government policies on refugees, civic sense and other ethical teaching upon invitation.
Chinland Guardian: So, how has CRC managed with the costs for operating all these services to the Chin refugees in Malaysia until today?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: Though the organization is small and illegal, the scope of works and expenses are beyond imagination. Annually, the total cost of operation is around Rm. 300,000 (US$ 100,000). The only financial source we have is from the community contribution. For new registration, CRC charges Rm. 30 per head and issues CRC card for their identification as a refugee. The card is renewable every year with Rm. 30 as an annual membership fee. CRC has to depend on this income source.
NGOs such as Interperes from Canada, Open Society Institute (OSI), Children on the Edge from the UK, Body shop Malaysia assist CRC for its daily operation with limited amount of fund. Other church-based organizations such as ACTS, Assumption Church and some individuals also help the Chin refugees with things like second-hand clothes and food items. It is hard to believe yet disheartening to say that no refugees who have been resettled to third countries from Malaysia have ever assisted CRC in kind or cash.
Chinland Guardian: Could you give us the general statistics on Chin refugees including the current population, numbers of detainees, deaths, and those who have resettled to other countries so far?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: The refugee population increases every year almost constantly. In 2001, it was estimated that around 5,000 Chin refugees were living in Malaysia. According to CRC’s registration records, the serial numbers reached up to 4,547 in 2004; 11,960 in 2005; 18,369 in 2006; 22,880 in 2007; 28,127 in 2008; 33,944 in 2009 and 39,498 in 2010. Currently, the total number of Chin refugees in Malaysia is estimated to be between 50,000 to 55,000.
Almost 2,000 Chins were arrested and detained every year by Malaysian Police, RELA and immigration. Deportation of detained refugees to the Thai border was stopped in the end of 2008 and from 2009 until today, detainees have been released by the UNHCR. More than 1,000 Chins arrested by Malaysian Police are released by CRC staffs from lockups at various locations across Malaysia. Every day, 50 to 500 Chins remain detained in various detention centres.
Though it is not well recorded, hundreds of Chin refugees and asylum seekers have died in Malaysia while waiting for resettlement to third countries. CRC recorded 39 deaths only from its recorded members in 2010 alone.
Over the past ten years, the total number of Chins registered with the UNHCR is over 36,000. It is believed that more than 20,000 individuals have been resettled to third countries.
Chinland Guardian: Some community groups and individuals from different Chin tribes are rumoured being not happy with CRC and it is claimed, for example, that ACR (Alliance of Chin Refugees) was established out of it. What were the actual reasons behind this, and what kinds of steps has CRC taken to create understanding?
Kennedy Lal Ram Lian: It would probably be true to some extent but not completely. In fact, it is very difficult for CRC alone to satisfy every single one, to treat equally, to provide all sorts of services demanded, and to take care of all the tasks for the whole Chin refugee communities with its limited capacity. Another reason was due to the diversity of dialects among the Chin people. It is not convenient for an uneducated Chin to talk in the language which he is not familiar with. CRC, then, spoke mainly in Hakha.
The operational mechanism and organisational structure of CRC is more like an independent NGO which sometimes stands out being difficult for the Chin to fully understand and accept. ACR split from CRC for many reasons, with tribal and dialect diversity being one of them. Organizational structure was another. However, CRC considers it as a good partition today. As the refugee population is getting bigger than what we really can serve, it is necessary in a way and better to form sub-ethnic organizations or bodies for the purpose of effective operations. If a Chin tribal group is willing to take responsibilities and having capability of providing services to its own community, CRC is always ready to help in any possible ways as needed.
One thing that CRC would like to focus on more seriously is to invite more volunteers from various Chin tribal groups and to create an environment where we all can work together as one big family under the name Chin, regardless of different social, religious and tribal backgrounds.
Chinland Guardian: Nowadays, there have been many different community-and-church-based Chin organisations in Malaysia. What is CRC’s relationship with them?
Kennedy Lal Ram Lian: Today, there are many community-based organizations. Under CRC, there are seventeen organizations and we all work together for a common cause of the Chin refugees. Each organization has to send two to six delegates to CRC. Out of these delegates, Executive Committee (EC) of CRC is elected and formed, from which Office Bearer (OB) is further elected. The EC Chairman automatically becomes CRC Chairman. Thus, CRC has to give necessary services to and work with all member organizations and communities. The UNHCR encourages the Chin tribal groups to be a part of either CRC or ACR in order for all of us to be united under the name Chin.
Chinland Guardian: CRC has also been criticised for taking ‘bribes’ in its dealing with refugee issues. Is it true?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: Regarding the bribery accusation, CRC as an organization is innocent. Taking any form of bribes is strictly prohibited. A penalty for doing so is to expel from the organisation. On the other hands, there might be corruption done individually by CRC staffs or EC members without the knowledge of the organisation. But it is safe to say that CRC does not get involved in any kind of bribery presently. If a member of CRC staffs is caught supporting or practicing this kind of unethical conducts, he or she will be immediately expelled from the organisation.
Chinland Guardian: Tell us more about Chin refugee children and women.
Kennedy Lalram Lian: As the refugee population in Malaysia increases, the number of children and women likewise increase. For the women, handicraft training was done in Chin Women Organization. The program covers various skills such as sewing, beading, weaving and craft-making. For children, in order to maintain their education, informal schools are run by Chin Students Organization (CSO) and Chin Women Organization (CWO). Currently, six schools under CSO and a school under CWO along with 53 community-run schools are functioning well for children. For single mothers, CRC is running a shelter which also provides capacity building training for the residences.
Chinland Guardian: There have also been reports about serious issues regarding anti-social behaviours, street-fighting among Chin youths, drinking problems, children being trapped into drug dealings, HIV infections, etc. How does CRC deal with all these issues?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: Most of the Chin refugees in Malaysia are from rural areas in remote parts of Chin State, and there is a big gap between the refugees and local Malaysians. Thus seminars on civic sense and anti-alcoholism are often conducted. In order to minimize street fighting, local community’s complaints and domestic problems, an organization called Chin Disciplinary Action Committee (CDAC) was formed in 2008. Around 400 volunteers participated in the program. Recognising the effective works and achievements of CDAC for the community over the past few years, the UNHCR has taken steps towards assisting its activities. Comparing to the previous years, the year 2011 sees a more peaceful environment in Chin refugee communities, at least in the alcoholic regard.
Sadly, the number of HIV-infected refugees increases. Medication is offered free by Malaysian government and a refugee status is granted to those with HIV positive. In attempts to respond to this issue, CRC finally puts up efforts in making a shelter for HIV patients, and raises fund for HIV shelters on donation basis. Awareness for HIV patients was also made through HIV Live Aid Concert in 2010.
Chinland Guardian: As a coordinator, what are the most challenging and happiest moments you have ever come across?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: As a coordinator of CRC, I have many types of difficulties in terms of skills including language, leadership, communication, management and so on. But I find ‘having a feeling of guilt’ most difficult to bear when I see with my own eyes refugees are suffering from various kinds of difficulties and when I see myself not being able to help them. I feel guilty when I am not in a position to get something good for them from the UNHCR. I feel guilty when I cannot get the detainees released. I know very well that what CRC could do in terms of solving all the problems facing the refugees in Malaysia is not even about five percent despite its commitment and willingness to do so.
On the other hand, I have time to enjoy my responsibility as a coordinator. I find it precious and feel honoured to have had a chance to serve my people. The Bible verse that always remains in my heart is from Esther 8:6: “For how can I endure to see the destruction that shall come upon my people?” I am thrilled when some refugees come and say thanks for just a little thing I had done for them. I feel so happy when I see the detainees released, the patients discharged fine, the rejected called for further assessment, the refugees resettled and so many others. I will not be able to forget those many nights I spent with full of stresses and worries, and those days I hunted for time.
Chinland Guardian: What is the current situation of Chin refugees in Malaysia?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: Currently, the most challenging issue is family derivative status as many women and children come to Malaysia to join their husbands or fathers. Family adding program takes time and hence gets delayed. Consequently, many women and children are unregistered. We have fear and grave concerns for them as they are more vulnerable.
The rate of new arrivals is not decreasing. The recent election in Myanmar makes no difference to stop the refugees flow into Malaysia. RELA operation takes place in one place or another almost every day. Life in Malaysia is still risky and peace doesn’t seem to be around but disappear.
Chinland Guardian: There have also been various negative reports about the Malaysian police including abusing refuges and extorting belongings from them. How vulnerable are Chin refugees in Malaysia and how dangerous is it for those who are arrested and detained by RELA or Malaysian Police?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: Malaysia, not being a signatory country of Refugee Convention, does not recognize the refugees and accept our existence. Apart from official raids, police corruption is the most problematic. Police may stop a refugee everywhere, especially on our way back from works. They ask for our IC (Identity Card), and then, money. They take our UNHCR cards and throw them away. If a refugee does not have money, he will be taken to Police Station, asked to call his friends or relatives to bring money or else, sent to lock-up.
When a refugee is arrested, CRC is informed by the arrestee. Protection in charge has to rush to the Police Station, meet the officer in charge and discuss about the remedy. Rm. 700 is needed as a bribe to get him out of the Police Station. If the arrestee does not have that money, CRC has to lend him but so far with no returns from almost anyone. If arrested by RELA and immigration, the refugee will be straight away taken to Immigration Detention Center (IDC). CRC thus has to inform the UNHCR of the situation, requesting help for intervention and release. For a UNHCR card holder, it may take around one or two months to get him/her released by the UNHCR but for the undocumented, it can take up to more than a year.
Chinland Guardian: With an estimated population more than 50,000 in Malaysia as you mentioned earlier, the issue of Chin refugees is unlikely to end soon. As a community-based organisation, what kind of suggestions would you give to the Chin communities and churches across the world to help solve the problems facing Chin refugees?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: This issue is the most challenging one for CRC because the refugee population is increasing, not decreasing. Having no other options, Chin people will remain in Malaysia for more than ten years. The problems and difficulties will not decrease but are more likely to increase. Based on the current situation, CRC therefore will have to stand firmly for Chin refugees for at least the next ten years. In a way, to support and strengthen the works of CRC is somehow to safeguard the Chin refugees.
For more than 50,000 refugees, there must be an office in operation to look after them. As mentioned earlier, it is very important and essential that CRC get helps and assistance from the resettled refugees so that it can carry out its operations and services more effectively in Malaysia. Just to be in a third country should not be the final destination for the Chin. We are created to love our brothers and sisters who are in need of helps. We must not forget that saving a life is primary, with development being just secondary. For those of us who had benefited from or been parts of CRC, we should not forget our past. To all Chin communities across the world, I would like to say Malaysia is the outlet for the Chin which our history cannot omit.
Chinland Guardian: CRC must be proud of having been able to function and provide voluntary services to Chin refugees in Malaysia for the past ten years. How is the future of CRC in terms of its existence and operations?
Kennedy Lalram Lian: CRC has crossed the most challenging period of the past ten years and gained sufficient experiences, and I believe it is ready to face the future with better achievement in cooperation with the whole Chin community all over the world. The ‘dark’ experiences of the past events are a precious lesson for us to face the ‘bright’ future.
Chinland Guardian: Thank you for your time and answers.
Kennedy Lalram Lian: Thanks for giving me this chance to raise the voice of the Chin refugees in Malaysia to my own people and others across the globe.