ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Malaysian Court Lifts Stay on Deportation of Myanmar Nationals

Rights groups have protested the decision, which they say could expose a group of 114 people to mistreatment on their return.

Malaysian Court Lifts Stay on Deportation of Myanmar Nationals
Credit: Depositphotos

A court in Malaysia yesterday lifted a stay on the deportation of 114 Myanmar nationals, raising concerns about the likely threats to their safety if sent back to the troubled country.

The court granted the request from the Malaysian government to lift the stay, which was imposed in February of last year to delay the deportation of 1,200 Myanmar nationals, and which the government ignored.

BenarNews reported that the group of 114 includes children and people believed to be asylum seekers who are currently in immigration detention.

The article also cited the lawyer for the group as saying that they would appeal the ruling of the Kuala Lumpur High Court. “We want to get an early date at the Court of Appeal. I don’t know the details of whether the deportation will take place soon. Hopefully not. We have filed appeals to the Court of Appeal and the Home Minister,” lawyer Lim Wei Jet said.

It was unclear if the group of 114 people would be deported immediately, but human rights groups immediately urged the newly formed government of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to desist.

“We strongly urge the government to reconsider its plan,” Amnesty International Malaysia and Asylum Access, which have provided legal representation to the group of Myanmar nationals, said in a joint statement yesterday. “We continue to call for our leaders to respect human rights and international law and halt any decision to send people back to a violent and dangerous situation.”

It added, “The government is determined to deport people instead of finding solutions that safeguard the rights and security of people from Myanmar and respects the Malaysian government’s human rights obligations.”

The 114 are reportedly part of the group of 1,200 Myanmar citizens who were slated for deportation in February of last year, just weeks after Myanmar’s military seized power and overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite the High Court imposing a temporary stay, the government deported 1,086 people, a move that the rights group Amnesty International described as “inhumane and devastating.” The 114 were left behind in immigration detention because they had tested positive for COVID-19, BenarNews reported.

As this suggests, Kuala Lumpur has taken an increasingly hard line on undocumented migrants and those seeking asylum in Malaysia, the majority of which are from Myanmar.

In mid-August, the Malaysian government accelerated its deportation of Myanmar asylum seekers, the advocacy group Human Rights Watch said in an October statement. It added that Malaysian immigration authorities had returned over 2,000 Myanmar nationals since April, without assessing their asylum claims or other protection needs. There is good evidence that this has included people who have fled Myanmar since the military coup and are likely to face harsh treatment should they return. Reuters reported that among the recent deportees were six former Myanmar navy officers, some of whom were detained by military authorities upon their return to Yangon.

As I’ve noted previously, Malaysia’s tough treatment of asylum seekers and undocumented migrants from Myanmar has undercut the country’s efforts to orchestrate a more active regional response to the repressive military government in Naypyidaw. It also suggests a large degree of disconnect between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs, under which the Immigration Department is nested.

To a large extent, Malaysia’s active stance on the Myanmar conflict was the project of former Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, who during his 15 months in the post, called out the military junta’s near-total non-compliance with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s Five-Point Consensus peace plan and condemned its continued campaign of terror against those resisting its rule. He was also the only ASEAN official to advocate publicly that the bloc open channels directly to Myanmar’s opposition National Unity Government.

It remains to be seen whether Anwar and his new foreign minister, Zambry Abdul Kadir, carry on this more active approach. During a press conference shortly after his swearing-in on December 5, Zambry said he could not make any comment on Malaysian policy toward Myanmar until he had discussed it with other members of the administration.

No doubt the coming months will bring some clarity about the extent to which Saifuddin’s active role on the Myanmar conflict enjoyed institutional backing.