By Hata Wahari and Fairuz Mazlan
Malaysia will investigate allegations of a police cover-up in the 2015 discovery of mass graves that held corpses of scores of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar and Bangladeshi migrants at human-trafficking camps in the jungle, a senior government official said Thursday.
Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamad spoke to BenarNews after a local newspaper, the New Straits Times (NST), published an exposé alleging that Malaysian authorities had known about the graves and camps close to Wang Kelian, a town near the Thai border in the northern state of Perlis, months before police publicly revealed the grim discovery.
“The case on Wang Kelian has never been closed,” Nur Jazlan told Benar. “It is still ongoing. And what has been reported by New Straits Times will definitely be taken into account.”
When NST broke the story a day earlier, its reporters questioned his boss, Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, about the explosive allegations.
“Definitely, investigations into this must be carried out. I want the authorities to get to the bottom of this,” Zahid told NST. “There will be no closing of the ‘Wang Kelian file.’”
In late May 2015, Malaysian police disclosed they had unearthed 106 corpses from 139 graves at abandoned human-smuggling camps near Wang Kelian. Earlier that month, officials in Thailand announced that similar graves of smuggled Rohingya Muslims and Bangladeshis were found at an abandoned camp in the jungle on the Thai side of the border.
In its report, NST claimed it found a “massive, coordinated cover-up” by Malaysian law enforcement authorities near the border, saying a team of investigative journalists had pored over scores of official documents, checked reams of reports and sought out witnesses during the past two years.
“One shocking discovery was that the authorities, particularly the Perlis police, knew the existence of these jungle camps in Wang Kelian in early January 2015, but had allegedly chosen not to do anything about them until half a year later,” the report said.
According to the newspaper, about 150 bodies were found at the jungle camps. The victims were mostly Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, it said.
The discovery of the graves and camps on both sides of the frontier led to a humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia in May 2015, after Thailand launched a crackdown on human-smuggling syndicates and prevented boatloads of illegal migrants from landing on its southwestern shores.
As a result, about 3,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi nationals, who were abandoned by their handlers, suddenly came ashore in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia.
In July this year, a Thai court convicted and sentenced a former three-star general and 61 other defendants in Thailand’s largest human-trafficking case, which stemmed from the discovery of the graves near the Malaysian border two years ago.
The NST report claimed that Malaysian law-enforcement personnel, other than knowing about the camps’ existence, had also cleaned up the “crime scene” and were working together with the smuggling syndicates.
The newspaper questioned why Malaysian police had sent hundreds of men, including commandos, up the hill on May 11 when their own men had already taken photographic evidence and filed reports on Jan. 19 and March 13, 2015, about the existence of the camps.
A commando team that raided camps in January 2015 “saw six cages, where scores of men and women were packed inside under the watchful eyes of foreign men armed with M-16 rifles,” the report said.
On June 12, 2015, then-Perlis Police Chief Shafie Ismail told journalists that there were no elements of foul play and said the victims had died from hunger after post-mortems had been done on the remains. The cases were classified as “sudden deaths.”
The NST opened its exposé by alleging that “mass killings” had taken place at the “death camps” in the jungles of Wang Kelian, but the report but did not delve into how people who were kept prisoner there were killed.
To date, Malaysia has only prosecuted four suspects in connection with the Wang Kelian case.
In March 2017, Zahid, the deputy prime minister, told parliament that four foreigners had been charged in connection with the mass graves. He said 12 police officers were arrested, but eventually released for lack of evidence.
On Thursday, attempts by BenarNews to reach the Perlis police chief and the Wang Kelian Special Investigation Team for reactions were unsuccessful.
“I’m on leave now. If it is about Wang Kelian, please refer to Bukit Aman as the special investigating team was from there,” Azisman Alias, the chief of Perlis police, told BenarNews.
Calls to Malaysian Police Chief Mohamad Fuzi Harun and his deputy went unanswered.
For its report, however, NST managed to reach Khalid Abu Bakar, Malaysia’s former police chief, who was in charge when the graves at Wang Kelian were found.
The paper tracked the retired chief to a local bowling alley, where reporters confronted him with questions. Khalid spoke on condition that the conversation “not be recorded,” NST said.
The ex-chief appeared “visibly apprehensive” and when he finally spoke, “his voice betrayed the enormity of what he was about to tell us,” the paper said, adding it was bound by journalistic ethics “not to publish what he had told us.”
‘Without fear or favor”
Meanwhile, the chairman of Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) said he had faced difficulty obtaining information from law-enforcement agencies, particularly the police, when his panel began investigating the tragedy at Wang Kelian.
“SUHAKAM has also requested information on the criminal investigation from the Ministry of Home Affairs to which no reply was received. No information on any progress made in the investigation thus far was supplied to SUHAKAM,” Razali Ismail said in a statement Thursday.
Elsewhere, Lawyers for Liberty (LFL), a human rights and law-reform group, called on the Malaysian government to set-up a Royal Commission of Inquiry to “to seriously investigate these killing fields at our very own backyard.”
“In order to do so, the government must demonstrate political will to act and hold accountable all those involved, regardless of rank, status or connection,” Eric Paulsen, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
“Civil society has long believed that such extensive and brazen human trafficking operations for so many years under the noses of the Malaysian authorities would not have been possible without the direct or indirect cooperation and assistance of local authorities,” he added.
Tenaganita, another local rights group, expressed shock over what it called the “blatant complicity of the authorities” in the alleged cover-up as reported by NST.
“Human trafficking by criminals is a common phenomenon all over the world, but it is extremely agonizing when law enforcement agencies are found to be entrenched in the criminal activities,” Tenaganita Executive Director Glorene A. Das said.
“The reported cover-up of the activities of the human trafficking syndicates and the destruction of vital evidence need to be explained; those involved in it should be brought to book, without fear or favor,” she said.