The Burma connection

By Neal McNamara

A Myanmar refugee from Malaysia sets up shop in Lansing

In 1991, Ye Min Tun was arrested and placed in Insein prison near Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Up until his arrest, Tun had been active in a democratic movement in the country, which has been ruled by a military junta since 1962.

While in Insein, Tun was tortured and abused. He said he was interrogated for days on end about silly things like what his real name was. His captors demanded that he give up information about the weapons he was getting from Thailand, even though he had no connections to the country.

One day during an interrogation, after being in prison for four months, a prison guard pulled out a gun and shot him in the thigh.

“Suddenly, I heard the sound, and my leg was hot and in pain,” he recounts.

But that wasn’t all. His teeth were pulled and he was beaten and tied up with a pillow over his head and given little or no food.

“It was really like hell,” he said.

After being released from prison, he was asked by the junta to join them. Instead, he fled to China, then Thailand and finally to Malaysia. It was in that country, which is home to an estimated 500,000 refugees from Myanmar, that Tun began working on labor and migrant issues. He would find that Malaysia, one of the most industrialized nations in Southeast Asia, is a dangerous place for refugees.

It was because of his activism in Malaysia that Tun is now in Lansing. Working to end human trafficking and organize migrant laborers, he earned enemies among gangs and government officials. He began a quest to come to the U.S. in September and was placed here, of all places. He was plopped down into Lansing last month, and, from his apartment on Jolly Road (which he shares with a Thai refugee), he is trying to get the word out about the situation in Malaysia.

When Tun first reached Malaysia, he started working on migrant labor issues. Many migrants in Malaysia, he said, are forced to work menial jobs in factories or sweatshops. Tun carries with him a book of photos of workers with missing arms, fingers and feet, maimed by outdated machinery. One picture shows a man lying in a morgue who died while operating a rickety lorry.

“There’s no labor community (in Malaysia),” Tun says. “Lots of people get hurt by machinery.”

Tun was a member of the Burma Workers’ Right Protection Committee, a group that helps Myanmar workers gain rights in Malaysia. It was through his work with labor issues that Tun discovered a booming human trafficking market of migrants.

Malaysia does not recognize refugees. So, anyone caught in the country illegally is held in detention and then deported. Tun said that the government immigration officials drive deportees to the northern Thai/Malay border and there, Tun said, the deportees are sold to human traffickers.

Once in the hands of the traffickers, Tun said, the deportees can either buy their way back into Malaysia, or be forced into slavery by the traffickers to pay back the debt.

According to the 2009 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Human Persons report, Malaysia is one of the worst countries in the world for human trafficking — and backs up Tun’s claim that the government is implicit in the practice.

“There were a number of credible reports of Malaysian immigration authorities’ involvement in the trafficking of Burmese refugees from immigration detention centers to the Thai-Malaysian border. Several credible sources reported that immigration officials sold refugees for approximately $200 per person to traffickers operating along Thailand’s southern border,” the report states. “In turn, the traffickers demanded ransom — ranging from $300 for children to $575 for adults — in exchange for their freedom. Informed sources estimated 20 percent of the victims were unable to pay the ransom, and were sold for the purpose of labor and commercial sexual exploitation.”

Tun says that the Malaysian government has yet to respond to U.S. statement on the country’s human rights practices.

For now, Tun takes the bus to the Capital Area District Library to use the Internet to keep in touch with fellow activists in Myanmar and to contribute to a blog covering events in Malaysia ( He’s working on getting his life established in a new country, but one of his first thoughts upon arriving here was to get the word out about Burmese migrants in Malaysia.

“Luckily for me, a lot of people were kind,” Tun says of his emigration to the United States.