Karen Zusman of the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting reports on the agonising ordeal in Malaysia of a married couple from Burma: the female was pregnant in a detention camp, which lacked adequate medical facilities, while the male received a horrific caning.
At the beginning of my trip I met with a young married couple from Burma. The wife was a new mother who had just been released from detention a week before—she had been in lock-up for nearly the entire term of her pregnancy and indeed had given birth while she was there. What’s more, the story of her husband who was arrested along with her. Rather than serve a lengthy detention he was sentenced to two months of prison and a “caning.” Something I had heard rumors about but never met someone who was willing to show me his scars. That changed when I met this couple and their newborn baby. The following is their story.
One night I received a text from a woman working at one of the more prominent NGOs informing me that a young woman from Burma had just been released from detention along with her newborn baby and would I come in the next morning to interview her.
When I arrived, Su Su and her husband, Nay Tin, were already there with a translator from their particular ethnic group. They had traveled one and a half hours by bus to meet with me. Neither Su Su nor Nay Tin spoke Burmese, so we actually had two translators. The one who accompanied them and who would translate their native language into Burmese, and one from the NGO who translated the Burmese into English. This is not an uncommon situation as most of the refugees from Burma living in Malaysia are not Burman (Burmese), but rather from one of the seven major ethnic groups. In this blog I’ve decided to omit the names of the particular groups from which my interviewees belong, in order to protect their identity. Later in the blog I will write about the different groups and their particular situation both in Burma and in Malaysia.
Su Su and Nay Tin had fled Burma for Malaysia and had been living there only 2 months. They were arrested in the middle of the night around 2:30 a.m. in what sounds to me like a classic RELA raid, although Su Su and Nay Tin are not sure if it was RELA members (an officially-sanctioned citizen group with the power to arrest that acts like vigilantes often raiding homes at night) or police. The officers broke into the flat while the occupants were sleeping. They woke everyone up and demanded to see their documents. Su Su was arrested without trial and sent to detention. Nay Tin went to trial, without any translator, and was ultimately sentenced to two months in prison and caning.
Su Su is 24 years old but looks 16. She has a lovely face but I can see the patches where she has suffered from a skin disease common to those who spend a significant amount of time in the Malaysian detention camps. It’s easy to spot. At the time of arrest, she was in her first term of pregnancy. She was handcuffed, separated from her husband, and loaded into a truck with many others, and sent to Lenggeng detention camp. No one told her where she was going or what would happen to her.
The woman from the NGO tells me that their organization had been contacted by a reporter a few months ago who learned about Su Su from another just released detainee from Su Su’s community. This person informed the reported that there was a pregnant woman in the camp who was unwell. The NGO worker went to the camp with a translator to check on Su Su—there were reports from other community members inside the camp that Su Su’s body was becoming seriously swollen. The NGO worker was refused visitation rights and told by the camp officials that Su Su was fine; that they had “seen her walk around;” and she was being given adequate medical care and food, appropriate for a pregnant woman.
None of that was true.
Su Su tells me she was given no special treatment during her pregnancy. She had to sleep on the wooden floor in Lengging camp, where bugs crawled up between the cracks. Everyone had bedbugs and couldn’t stop scratching. When they slept they were so close they touched each other’s bodies. When her body became very swollen all over she asked to see the doctor but was refused. Finally, doubled up in pain, she went into labor and only when other detainees screamed continuously for help for her, was Su Su transferred to a local hospital where she had her baby.
Three hours after childbirth, Su Su and her baby were taken back to detention camp. They gave her a small bowl and one extra small bottle of water to wash her baby, but that is the only exception they offered her. Within a day the baby turned completely yellow. After a lot of pleading with the guards, the baby was sent back to the hospital. But this new mother had to stay in the camp, separated from her newborn, and in a lot of discomfort herself.
Because Su Su had only arrived in Malaysia from Burma a few months before her arrest, she was not as yet registered by the UN. There is nothing UNHCR can do for the refugees who have not yet been registered, except to try and register them in the camps. But the numbers are overwhelming and the process can take over a year or more. Luckily for Su Su, this NGO was able to get help from UNHCR and three weeks after Su Su gave birth she and her baby were released. At the time of our meeting Su Su had still not received a birth certificate for her child. Without it, the baby cannot be registered with the UN.
Su Su’s husband, Nay Tin, sits by her side calmly listening to her story. Chiming in here and there when necessary in order to help his wife understand the translator’s questions. He was arrested by in Malaysia at the same time as Su Su, when their home was raided in the middle of the night. But rather than being sent to detention like his wife, Nay Tin was formally sentenced. He told me that at his trial the immigration official was asking him questions but there was no interpreter present and he was being tried in Behasa (Malaysian language) and he didn’t understand what he was being asked. He just nodded, “Yes,” to everything. His sentence for entering the country illegally included caning, a primeval form of punishment still alive and well in Malaysia.
I asked Nay Tin if he could explain the caning process. He asked for paper and drew a hang-man like figure bent over a box and chained at the wrists and ankles. He told me they said to him, “You are being whipped for coming into this country uninvited and with no papers. You are a criminal here. That is why we can punish you.” After he was whipped, the pain was so overwhelming he could no longer walk and had to be carried out of the room by two Malaysian prison officials.
I asked the woman from the NGO if it would be alright to ask Nay Tin if I could photograph his scar. I knew it meant that he would have to take off his clothes and it’s a sensitive question. On the other hand, there are numerous reports of the caning, but very few photographs. She told me I could ask but that he might not want me to.
On the contrary, Nay Tin was quite willing. After sitting next to his wife and baby for the two hours while I interviewed her, having to hear her story of the horrors of detention camp and being separated from her newborn, I’m not surprised that he wanted to show me what is happening to the refugees from Burma in Malaysia–even if it means having to drop his pants in front of a strange, white woman. He realized the importance.
We went to a private room where he turned from me and pulled down his jeans and briefs—the scar was quite visible though now it is 7 months old. Because the wound happened across his buttocks I’ve decided not to publish the photo, but it appeared to me as a thick red burn line, about 7 inches long and nearly an inch wide.
When Nay Tin and I return to the room where Su Su waits with the baby and translator I can feel it’s been a hard and long morning for everyone. I thank them for coming and watch Nay help Su Su rock their infant in her arms. The baby is quite small even for three weeks and still has a slightly yellowish tinge to its skin. It has hardly cried at all during the whole morning, an apt metaphor for the refugees from Burma who are subjected to such harsh treatment in Malaysia but suffer largely in silence.
I tell the young couple I will let them know when their story is published so someone can read it to them. The translator repeats my expression and they both smile at me shyly, the baby is now wrapped up in a traditional cloth and tied tightly around Su Su’s back. There is a hush in the room as the door closes soundlessly behind them.
Karen Zusman is a writer and independent, multi-media journalist focusing on human rights abuses and issues related to people from Burma.