Tension simmers in KL's 'Little Myanmar'

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 10, 2013

AT THE Kuala Lumpur wholesale market on a busy Saturday morning, workers loading boxes of vegetables onto trucks can be heard hollering at each other in the Myanmar language, drowning out the chatter of their Chinese bosses.

Outside a row of shophouses nearby, women hawkers from Myanmar have set up stalls to sell betel nuts under the scorching sun.

The appearance of normalcy at the market in Selayang and its surrounding areas, which have become something of a "Little Myanmar", belies the simmering tension in the community since several Myanmar workers were killed or injured in clashes in recent weeks.

Malaysian police have linked the violence here to sectarian clashes back in Myanmar, where several hundred people have been killed and thousands more displaced as a result of conflict between Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya minorities.

Reports in the Malaysian media further suggested that the Myanmar nationals who had been targeted were Buddhists who were singled out by their Muslim countrymen seeking revenge.

Myanmar's sectarian conflict has also spilled into Indonesia. Last month, Indonesian anti-terror police nabbed several militants suspected of plotting to bomb the Myanmar Embassy in retaliation for the attacks against Muslims in Myanmar.

To prevent further clashes, Malaysian police have since rounded up over 900 Myanmar nationals. City deputy police chief Datuk Amar Singh Ishar Singh told The Straits Times yesterday that the situation is now under control with no fresh arrests made in the last two days.

But interviews with Myanmar migrant workers suggest that tension is still running high in the community.

Many workers, especially those who are Buddhists, are said to be hiding in fear.

Those without documentation are worried that they have a higher chance of being caught given the authorities' heightened vigilance.

"My Buddhist friends have not been coming to work for days as they are in hiding until things have calmed down," a 28-year-old worker who wants to be known only as Adam, a Myanmar Muslim from Mawlamyine.

He added: "I don't understand why the religious clashes would hit us here, as we are all from Myanmar and so, we understand each other's difficulties and should not fight with each other."

The recent spate of violence has also affected the Chin community, people from a Christian minority in Myanmar.

"About 20 Chins have fled their homes and slept at my flat in the past few nights as they are worried for their safety," said Mr Ricky Kap, a Myanmar refugee and chairman of the Alliance of Chin Refugees.

It is unclear what, if anything, the Myanmar community plans to do to ease tension. When approached, many chose to evade the issue altogether.

The issue, however, is unlikely to fade away anytime soon given the size of the migrant worker population from Myanmar. Malaysia is one of the largest recipients of Myanmar migrant workers in the region, many of them refugees.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said there are almost 95,000 refugees from Myanmar in Malaysia, who are mainly Muslims. The Malaysian government said, as of 2011, there are some 137,784 registered migrant workers from Myanmar.

But the Myanmar embassy estimates that Malaysia might have more than 400,000 documented and undocumented workers from Myanmar.

Some migrant workers insist that such bouts of violence are rare, and that the majority just want a peaceful life.

"We are not here to create trouble as we just want to work and earn money, whether we are Buddhists or Muslims," said an illegal migrant worker who wants to be known only as Saiful.

Their employers are unfazed, for now. A vegetable supplier, who wanted to be known only as Sze Ling, said she would not fire her three Myanmar workers unless they were involved in violent clashes.

"They are cheap labour and generally work hard," she said. "We have grown to trust them as they have been with us for years."

The Malaysian government has attempted to legalise some of the undocumented migrant workers here under a programme called 6P in 2011. But many are hesitant to come forward as they are concerned that their whereabouts would be monitored.

Some of them also don't want to go through the hassle as they don't intend to live here.

Adam said he is working hard to save money earned from transporting vegetables at the market so that he may open a shop in his hometown someday.

"I dream of returning home every day," he said. "I know it is a far-fetched dream, but I hope that day will come."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 10, 2013

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