Tom Allard, SMH, 25.6.11
A YOUNG Burmese refugee was rounded up, sent to prison for three months and lashed three times with a rattan cane last year even though he possessed a coveted refugee card supposed to offer protection from persecution in Malaysia.
Kap Lian's account of his arrest, incarceration and punishment, the first by an actual holder of a refugee card, raises new questions about the federal government's guarantee that no asylum seeker it sends to Malaysia will be abused under its proposed refugee swap deal.
Malaysia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees insist protections of refugees have improved substantially in recent times. In a significant development, it was announced on Thursday that the feared volunteer corps, known by its Malay acronym RELA, has ceased operations against irregular migrants since March.
Advertisement: Story continues below But Mr Kap Lian's nightmare occurred when the UNHCR was supposed to have an arrangement with the police and immigration authorities that any genuine refugees would not be detained, let alone punished with caning.
It all began, Mr Kap Lian tells the Herald, when RELA cadres stormed his apartment block in Kuala Lumpur in the early hours of March 11 last year.
''There were 20 of us picked up and six of us had UNHCR cards,'' says Mr Kap Lian, a quietly spoken 20-year-old from the persecuted Chin ethnic minority. ''We showed them the cards, but they just took them from us and kept them … and then took us to prison.''
After 14 days, Mr Kap Lian was taken before a court. But, he says, they had no legal representation and could not understand what was happening because they did not speak Malay. ''The sentence was three months and three hits with the cane. It was the same for all six of us.''
Trussed up and naked except for a blindfold and a small piece of cloth to cover his genitalia, Mr Kap Lian said he took three hits across his buttocks from the long rattan cane. The pain was like no other he had experienced.
''It was very bad,'' he says. ''For one week I couldn't sleep. For two weeks, I couldn't sit down.'' He was given medicine just once.
Mr Kap Lian's story could not be independently verified with the UNHCR but the young Chin bears the scars of his ordeal. He explained he couldn't contact the UNHCR because his card, which contained a hotline number on the back that he could call for help, was confiscated. Guards at the detention centre also refused to let him call community leaders who might have been able to help him, he said.
As a 14-year-old, Mr Kap Lian says he was intermittently pressganged by Burma's military, and forced to serve as a porter. At 18, told he would have to serve full-time, he left to join 40,000 other Chin in Malaysia.
As he waits for resettlement, he works illegally as a construction worker, earning about $15 a day.
''If I could come to Australia, well, it would be better than Malaysia,'' he says. ''Even better, though, would be if the government changed in Burma and I could go back.''