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Wang Kelian’s Dark Legacy: Mass Graves, Human Trafficking Channel And Other Atrocities

In March 2015, illegal immigrants’ transit camps and 147 mass graves were discovered in Wang Kelian, Perlis, close to the Malay-Thai border. The skeletal remains of about 130 people were found and the victims were allegedly from the ethnic Rohingya community of Myanmar and Bangladesh[1].

8 years later, the case is still open, and just recently four of the Thai citizens linked to this atrocity are being extradited to Malaysia to be charged[2]. And last year, a couple was arrested in Bangkok for alleged involvement in the human trafficking syndicate linked to the Wang Kelian graves[3].

Wang Kelian continues to serve as a grim reminder of the horrors of human trafficking in the country and the alleged corruption that enabled such crimes to continue unimpeded.

The camp sites (above and below pics) discovered by the Royal Malaysian Police where migrants were housed and forced to survive in the grimmest of circumstance by people smugglers in a jungle near the Malaysia-Thailand border in Genting Perah. Source: The Star

Malaysia – A Channel For Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is considered the third-largest crime in the world, behind drugs and arms trafficking, and Malaysia had seen a rise in human trafficking cases, with 165 cases recorded in 2020, compared with only 17 such cases in 2008. And as for the smuggling of migrants, the number of cases rose sharply to 265 in 2020 from three in 2010[4].

Source: The Star

Statistics from the Council for Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants (MAPO) further noted that from 2015 up to June 2021, a total of 1,854 trafficking cases were reported while 2,732 people were arrested in connection with the cases[4].

Unfortunately, Malaysia has become something of a channel for human trafficking and according to the US State Department, forced labour is the predominant human trafficking crime in the country. In fact, 2021 saw Malaysia fall to “Tier 3” in that year’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report as, according to the report, it continued to conflate human trafficking and migrant smuggling crimes and did not adequately address or criminally pursue credible allegations on labour trafficking[5].

The sectors primarily where we see the greatest forced labour — which is the predominant form of crime within Malaysia — include palm oil and agriculture plantations, construction sites, in the electronics, garment and rubber product industries. – Kari Johnstone, Acting Director of the State Department’s trafficking office[5]

The State Department in its ‘Trafficking in Persons Report 2019’ further adds that human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Malaysia, and to a lesser extent, traffickers exploit victims from Malaysia abroad[6].

Johnstone said the overwhelming majority of trafficking victims in Malaysia are migrant workers. — Picture by Hari Anggara. Source: Malay Mail

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic did not reduce the trend in trafficking cases in Malaysia. If anything, traffickers had begun to exploit the desperation of target groups as people were left increasingly destitute. It certainly didn’t help that travel restrictions had forced rescue operations to halt temporarily, giving traffickers an advantage to capitalise on this crisis. According to the ‘Trafficking in Persons Report 2021’, traffickers tend to target families who are in dire financial straits by offering empty promises and fraudulent job offers to hire their children[7].

Even today, people continue to fall to job scams, many of which have gone online. There is an increasing number of advertisements reaching out to social media users through  Facebook, Telegram and WhatsApp, seducing youths with the possibility of earning money through gig work or making big payments from easy jobs[8].

Last year, a 14-year-old boy from Kuala Lumpur got kidnapped and almost trafficked to Thailand after he departed from home once he heard about a job that paid RM1,800 per month. Having spent most of his time playing video games online, he would regularly ask his family to transfer money on his game credits. However, after his online friend informed him of the job, he decided to leave his home.

Yet, once he arrived at the destination to meet up with the friend, he got locked away in a wooden house and heard he would be sold to Thailand. His family and police eventually found him with the help of his teacher, who played games with the victim, and also his friends who were contacted[9].

He was luckier than Goi Zhen Feng, who became the first Malaysia death formally recorded linked to the scam trade after a syndicate preyed on his emotions through an online romance that started off on social media.

He met a girlfriend online and they would talk over video calls,” said his father. “We never saw her face but we heard her voice … whenever we came into the room she would sign off because she was shy or the internet connection would suddenly fail. –  Goi Chee Kong, father of the late Goi Zhen Feng[10]

The 23-year-old trainee teacher left his home in Ipoh, Perak to meet his online girlfriend in Bangkok, Thailand with the promise he would return a day before his mother’s birthday in February 2022. But instead, he was alleged to have been forced to work for a massive scam and money-laundering scheme led by gangsters from China but operating in bordering towns of Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar[10].

Refugees Find No Asylum Here

Malaysia had also become a place for refugees seeking asylum from conflicts. The country hosts some 181,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, with 85% coming from Myanmar, including some 103,000 Rohingyas. The remaining are from 50 other countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia[11].

Unfortunately for these refugees, they only found more hardship. Children especially have it worse, forced to face hardships at such a young age when they lose or move away from their homeland. Some have been abandoned or removed from their families. They may have also been victims of violent crimes, including exploitation, neglect, and trafficking[12].

These refugee children are barred from attending the free government school system and other public examinations to allow them to pursue further education. And because of this, they often have little option but to follow their parents or adult carers and adjust to their new host nation[13]. According to Dr Baharudin Suri, Haluan’s welfare and humanitarian bureau vice president, more than 23,000 refugee children of schooling age in Malaysia were denied the right to education[14].

Malaysia has seen an increase in the number of refugee children in recent years, with more than 9000 added in less than three years. By 2019, over 51,000 of the 164,620 documented refugees are under the age of 18[13]. And in 2020, the Home Ministry revealed that 756 children were held at immigration detention centres nationwide, with the figure consisting of 488 male and 268 female children[15].

The ministry also revealed that there were 405 children being held at immigration detention centres without their respective guardians with the bulk of these children being of Myanmar nationality who made up the largest number of these children with 253 boys and 73 girls being held, making up a total of 326 out of the 405 children[15].

The Dark Secrets Of Wang Kelian: A Police Cover-Up?

Before the discovery of the mass graves, villagers in Wang Kelian had been bumping into both Rohingya migrants and members of the people smuggling syndicate in the years prior.

They said some of the migrants had come out of the jungle to beg for food and others to pray at a nearby mosque, and that the syndicate members would transport the migrants across the border at night when the Malaysian-Thai border here closed and there were thus fewer security personnel[16].

If only these villagers knew the horrors that were going on near their homes.

Villagers in Malaysia’s Kampung Wang Kelian have been bumping into Rohingya migrants and members of the people smuggling syndicate in recent years. — PHOTO: THE STAR/YOUTUBE. Source: The Straits Times

The camp where the mass graves were discovered has since become known as one of the biggest human trafficking base camps up in the Nakawan range bordering Thailand. Officially, the events that led to the discovery of the mass graves began when several personnel with the General Operations Force (GOF) manning the border, noticed the presence of foam, the smell of detergent and waste flowing downstream where they clean up after a patrol, things that seemed out of place in an area that was supposed to be uninhabited[17].

After their alerts were ignored by their superiors, the personnel brought their suspicions to the police who subsequently conducted a raid on the compound.

And yet questions remained as people began to wonder how the Malaysian border patrol was able to miss it and why they did not take prior reports from Malaysian villagers seriously.

To get to the bottom of this, the New Straits Times Special Probes Team launched an exhaustive, two-year investigation into this atrocity. The investigation uncovered some startling evidence suggesting a massive, coordinated cover-up[18].

Who are the Malaysians, private citizens or enforcement personnel that enabled such a racket to go unabated for a long period and allowed so many deaths to occur? When will the Malaysians involved be brought to justice? Thailand charged a long list of people, from 5-star generals to local officials in the first year. – Jerald Joseph, Chair of CSO Platform for Reform and former Suhakam commissioner[19]

But where are the Malaysians who are part of it? Jerald Joseph has been pushing for a transparent investigation of the tragedy since it garnered public attention in 2015.

One shocking discovery was that the authorities, particularly the Perlis police, knew about 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. Indeed, when the police announced their initial “discovery” on May 25th of that year, they were not ambiguous when they said that they believed the camps were only vacated three weeks prior[18].

Prior to the official “discovery”, an operation was already carried out in Bukit Wang Burma on January 19th 2015 and detained 38 human trafficking victims (22 Bangladeshis and 16 Myanmar). According to the official after-action report, an estimated 150 individuals, who were caged up earlier, had “escaped into the jungle” during the raid. Which raises a question: how exactly were human trafficking victims and armed syndicate members able to escape a professional assault team?[18] Not to mention that future sweeps of the area were not conducted until March of that year.

What happened to the suspects who were arrested? What happened to the 38 human trafficking victims’ rescued? Why was there, not a speedy trial, more so since many of these suspects were caught red-handed and the witnesses were available? The previous BN government seems to have failed in ensuring justice is done. – Charles Hector[1]

The report on the Bukit Wang Burma raid brought up the existence of a local middleman who allegedly admitted to greasing the palms of personnel in border security agencies to ensure that his operation could continue unmolested[18].

Many of these agencies are highly involved in human trafficking, and this is a serious trans-border crime that cannot be eliminated by arresting illegal immigrants and deporting them. For as long as there are authorities working hand-in-glove with these syndicates, eradicating this problem will be an uphill battle. – A report on the Bukit Wang Burma raid[18]

All of this raises serious concerns regarding the transparency of the Wang Kelian case and hints at possible signs of corruption on the part of Malaysian authorities.

Corruption seems to be the underlying reason why this crime was possible. The task to fight corruption at all levels must be proven if we want to fight trafficking, if not the victims without names will be forever forgotten. – Jerald Joseph, Chair of CSO Platform for Reform and former Suhakam commissioner[19]

The first raid on a human trafficking camp in Wang Kelian on Jan 19, 2015, led to the discovery of mass graves. Source: New Straits Times

The Royal Commission of Inquiry’s Declassified Statements

A declassified report from the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) claimed that no Malaysian enforcement officials, public servants or locals were involved in human trafficking and migrant smuggling syndicates. It did, however, admit that there was gross negligence on the part of border patrols involved in the Wang Kelian case[20].

The report, which was conducted from March 5 to Sept 4, 2019, added that illegal syndicates operated freely as the demand for workers was ever-present due to the fluid nature of government policies concerning migrant workers. Requests made to the Thailand and Bangladesh governments for the extradition of several suspects to help with the investigations also did not receive a positive response, the RCI report stated[20].

It further states that the torture and deaths of Rohingya refugees and others in Wang Kelian “should have been prevented by the authorities” and that Malaysian enforcement agencies failed to follow their own standard operating procedures, significantly impacting the quality of their investigation into the case[20].

Needless to say, this did not do much to quell suspicions of corruption. Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of the non-profit Fortify Rights, said the unceremonious appearance of the report online, unknown to key stakeholders in the country, raised questions about the ongoing lack of justice and accountability for Rohingya victims of trafficking.

In response to the RCI’s findings, and to give Rohingya victims and their families a measure of justice, the Malaysian government must provide reparations and prosecute officials implicated in the horrendous crimes in Wang Kelian. The only secrets surrounding this report relate to official complicity in the trafficking camps, and the next steps should involve prosecutions. – Matthew Smith, CEO, Fortify Rights[20]

Smith added that RCI was supposed to advance justice and accountability, not end the conversation on Wang Kelian and other such cases or sweep the crimes involved under the rug.

Despite the failings and serious negligence identified by the RCI, the report fails to recommend legal action against implicated officials nor a fuller investigation of potential official complicity in the human trafficking syndicate responsible for the atrocities in Wang Kelian. A full investigation and legal action must now be taken against Malaysian officials identified as potentially having obstructed justice in their negligent handling of the investigation into the abuse and murder of trafficking victims in Wang Kelian. – Matthew Smith, CEO, Fortify Rights[20]

The raiding team with foreign men in custody at the camp where the first mass graves were found. Source: New Straits Times

The Need To Prevent Another Wang Kelian

The trafficking of Rohingya to Malaysia was widespread and systematic and demands justice, accountability, and reparations for victims and their families. – Matthew Smith, CEO, Fortify Rights[20]

After eight long years, the trial of four of the culprits involved in Wang Kelian may finally bring peace to the victims. But it sadly won’t bring an end to human trafficking in our country.

While there is still much controversy over this crime, it is clear that we need to prevent another Wang Kelian from taking place.

The Malaysian government has been working hard to stamp out human trafficking in this country, with the Anti-Trafficking in Persons and Anti-Smuggling of Migrants Act or Atipsom (2007) being enacted in 2008 as well as MAPO to, among others, coordinate the implementation of the Act[4].

Mapo is also tasked with formulating policies and programmes to prevent and combat the crime of trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants in Malaysia. It also functions and acts inclusively as the council’s membership consists of various ministries, enforcement agencies and other organisations, including the relevant NGOs. – Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin[4]

Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin stresses that the smuggling of migrants is a crime that can threaten the security and sovereignty of the nation and that the government will not compromise with any party that conspires with syndicates involved in the smuggling of migrants to procure certain rewards, including material and financial benefits[4].

The efforts include stepping up enforcement activities and using the mass media to channel information concerning this offence. Apart from that, the government has also established a special court in Klang, Selangor, to deal with trafficking in persons cases and has set up eight government shelters and two NGO shelters for the placement of victims of human trafficking in Malaysia. The victim protection programme, however, does not apply to smuggled migrants (into the country) unless there is proof that they are exploited sexually or as forced labour or organ donors which resulted in them becoming victims of human trafficking. – Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin[4]

As of now, Malaysia has been upgraded from Tier 3 to Tier 2 of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2023. And yet, according to Suhakam chairman Rahmat Mohamad, there’s “still much work to be done[21].

Despite the progress made, there is still much work to be done to combat this grave violation of human rights. Suhakam urges the government to continue prioritising efforts to prevent human trafficking, protect victims, and ensure accountability for perpetrators. – Rahmat Mohamad, Suhakam chairman[21]

He called for increased collaboration among the government, civil society organisations and stakeholders to strengthen Malaysia’s response to human trafficking, contribute to the elimination of the “deplorable” practice and realise the objectives of the National Action Plan on Anti-Trafficking in Persons 2021-2025 and the National Action Plan on Forced Labour 2021-2025. He also emphasised the need for full protection and assistance for trafficked and smuggled victims in accordance with the international standards set by the United Nations[21].

If we are to truly put the ghosts of Wang Kelian to rest, we must do our part to combat human trafficking. And that often includes demanding greater transparency from our authority figures in regard to crimes of such nature. Corruption still pervades our government and authority groups and that includes the border patrols responsible for rooting out human traffickers. And letting this corruption stew will only allow another Wang Kelian to happen.

Explore our sources:

  1. C. Hector. (2020). Wang Kelian: Still no justice after five years, 130 deaths. Malaysiakini. Link.
  2. T. Yi Liang. (2023). Four Thais linked to Wang Kelian mass graves to face trial in Malaysia, says Saifuddin. The Star. Link.
  3. Bernama. (2022). Couple carrying Malaysian passport arrested for human trafficking in Wang Kelian. The Star. Link.
  4. Bernama. (2021). Eradicating human trafficking, smuggling activities. The Star. Link.
  5. Reuters. (2021). Forced labour main human trafficking crime in Malaysia, says US. Malay Mail. Link.
  6. Trafficking Still A Problem In Malaysia. (2020). The ASEAN Post. Link.
  7. A. Yong. (2021). Human Trafficking: A Rising Issue in Malaysia. Zenarations Malaysia. Link.
  8. Digital News Asia. (2022). Cybercriminals continue to prey on Malaysian job-seekers – Kaspersky explains why. Link.
  9. F. Fong. (2022). 14-Year-Old KL Boy Falls Victims To Job Scam And Nearly Trafficked To Thailand. The Rakyat Post. Link.
  10. A. Jones. (2022). Exclusive | Malaysian victim’s death linked to Asia’s ‘hell on Earth’ scam trade. South China Morning Post. Link.
  11. UNHCR. Link.
  12. UNHCR. (2021). Children. Link.
  13. J.K. Kok. & et al. (2021). Refugee Children In Malaysia: Perceptions of Family and Coping Mechanisms. TQR. Link.
  14. A. David.  (2022). Poverty Stricken Refugees Deserve Education. New Straits Times. Link.
  15. T. Tan, H. Sivanandam & R. Rahim. (2020). Home Ministry: 756 children held at immigration detention centres nationwide as of Oct 26. The Star. Link.
  16. Malaysian villagers recall encounters with Rohingya migrants, human traffickers. (2015). The Straits Times. Link.
  17. F. Naz Karim & A. Shah. (2017). Wang Kelian: Sources keen to unload secrets. New Straits Times. Link.
  18. F. Naz Karim & A. Shah. (2017). The secrets of Wang Kelian exposed. New Straits Times. Link.
  19. A. Shah. (2023). Wang Kelian mass grave: where are the Malaysian collaborators? New Straits Times. Link.
  20. A. Camoens. (2022). Wang Kelian graves: No locals involved but border patrols negligent, says RCI report. The Star. Link.
  21. Still ‘much work to be done’ to combat human trafficking, says Suhakam. (2023). FMT. Link.

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