By: Matthew Abbey

The hundreds of thousands of Buddhist migrant workers in Malaysia face a growing cycle of violence, with scant attempts to protect their lives beyond sending out safety instructions. 

In recent weeks, relations between the two countries have soured, with Myanmar banning workers from going to Muslim-majority Malaysia after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak lashed out at Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi for allowing what he called “genocide” during a rally in Kuala Lumpur.

The rally drew thousands of people protesting Myanmar’s military action against ethnic Rohingya, who are Muslims, Malaysia’s predominant religion. As many as 20,000 Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh.

That is a separate issue, however, from the violence against migrants. Last week another five migrant workers from Myanmar were murdered by a mob in the Serdang district on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, with another two remaining in critical condition and several others escaping unharmed. 

 “Four Myanmar men died at the scene of the attack almost immediately, said U San In, chair of the Kathphone Free Funeral Service Society, a rights group based in Kuala Lumpur that provides funerals for impoverished citizens. “One died in the hospital [on Jan.6]. Another two remain in a serious condition due to blood loss.”

According to the organization, a mob of Malaysian men surrounded the group of 16 Myanmar citizens as they returned home from work. Following the attack, the police said they found no “religious motivations” behind the attack, but it’s easier to deny the existence of targeting killings than to admit to it.

Around 25 Myanmar migrant workers were killed between June 2013 and September 2014, indicating there is a reoccurring theme of violence targeting the predominantly Buddhist migrants. Rohingya, who are ethnic Muslims, appear largely to have escaped the violence.

In a robbery turned wrong in June 2016, three Myanmar migrant workers were stabbed by masked men riding motorcycles in Penang. On Oct.25, another four migrants were kidnapped and then murdered in Kota Bahru, their dismembered bodies only being discovered buried seven days later. According to migrant rights activists, the police have not arrested anyone in relation to the two events.

Malaysia, richer that almost all of its neighboring countries except for Singapore, is a magnet for foreign workers, with migrants coming from at least 12 Asian countries – the majority from Indonesia, which shares ethnic and religious ties. They are believed to comprise as many as half of construction workers and 60 percent of the manufacturing sector.  Nearly 40 percent of them have no formal education.

As many as 400,000 Myanmar legal migrant workers are in Malaysia, according to the Myanmar Embassy, but others estimate there are between 500,000-700,000, mostly without legal documents. Myanmar migrant workers have regularly gone to work in haphazard conditions with little prospect of earning a decent wage or improving their working conditions. The wage and the conditions, however, are often better than what is available in Myanmar. The Myanmar Embassy as a result created a task force comprising 50 civil society organizations based in the country to monitor labor conditions, but it appears this is not enough to protect the migrants.

After many Rohingya Muslims fled the country and arrived in several countries across Southeast Asia, regional governments have become critical of Myanmar’s treatment of the minority but hardly have humanitarian intentions. Rather, the Rohingya Muslims have become a burden politically and economically on the countries where they are seeking asylum. It is envisaged that criticism will stop the asylum seekers.

“There are several reasons for the ban on Myanmar migrant workers going to Malaysia, including security concerns and the fact that they are trying to stir up political troubles against Myanmar,” the deputy director general of Myanmar’s Labor, Immigration and Population Ministry, Nyunt Win, said in December.

But with little prospect of finding employment across Myanmar, the warnings are unlikely to deter the migrants crossing into Malaysia. Many continue to find a way across even today.

Both Myanmar and Malaysia have spectacularly failed to address the rights of Myanmar migrant workers. Myanmar only attempted to stem the flow of migrant workers based on a political grudge. After being criticized for its treatment of the Rohingya Muslims, Myanmar wanted to retaliate against the country benefitting from its workforce.

In the same way that Myanmar has failed its country’s minorities, migrant workers have been failed and instead become a political pawn in government’s chess game. For many citizens of Myanmar, being blocked from entering Malaysia only removes the potential income a migrant worker successfully earns.

Malaysia, on the other hand, has failed to protect Myanmar migrant workers from several attacks, indicating its inability to hold its citizens to account over the use of violence on foreigners. If the country wants to continue to attract foreign migrants, it needs to stop the violence.

The Myanmar migrant workers are a benefit both countries, boosting Malaysia’s economy while sending remittances home to family members in Myanmar. It’s about time both governments stop letting political feuds jeopardize the safety of an important part of their economies, and the lives of migrant workers.