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A night out with Rela

Rela volunteers praying for a smooth raid
(All pictures and videos courtesy of Mien Ly)

“BUKA pintu! Buka pintu!” shout the volunteers through the grill door, into the hallway of the shop lots in Pudu. They are from Rela, a civil volunteer corp formed by the Malaysian government in 1972 to help preserve “peace and national security”. They are conducting a raid on undocumented migrants here, in the middle of Ramadan, on 2 Sept 2009.

Rela's tools for raids — wire cutters, very big torch lightsA man comes sleepily to the grill door. The three Rela volunteers, dressed in their green combat-like uniforms, demand that he opens the door fast or they will cut it. They speak in Bahasa Malaysia. The man seems to understand them — he slowly comes out of his daze and realises what is going on. He responds in English, “Wait, wait, I go get the keys.”

When he retreats, another Rela volunteer arrives on the scene with a cutter. The Rela volunteers cut the lock on the grill door. When the man returns with his keys, the Rela men say to him in Malay, “You’re slow, we had to cut.”

They proceed down the hallway, and knock on all the other doors. Another door opens, revealing a senior man and teenage boy, both equally dazed from being awakened. The Rela volunteers demand to see their identity cards (ICs) or any documents. The older man asks to see a search permit. The volunteers say, “The police are down there, the immigration [officers] are down there, go ask permits from them.”

Woman stopping Rela personnel at door to ask for warrantThe teenage boy produces their ICs — MyKads. “My son,” the old man explains when the Rela volunteers ask about the boy. “I live with my family.” The Rela volunteers demand that the older man open all the doors to see if he is harbouring any undocumented migrants or what they call “Pati” — pendatang asing tanpa izin, or literally “foreign migrants without permission”. No “Pati” is found here. A Rela volunteer apologises for the inconvenience. The rest go upstairs to knock on more doors. The older man swears in Cantonese under his breath at this intrusion, and possibly also because he now has to buy another lock.

At another apartment, a group of women are awakened from their sleep, asked to change out of their pyjamas and bring their passports down for immigration officers to check. Five men in Rela uniforms wait outside their room, constantly knocking, and sometimes threatening to knock the door down if they don’t hurry up. The women only comprehend when a Rela volunteer speaks in Mandarin to them. One woman asks, “Can’t you check now? I’ve to leave early in the morning to Penang for work.” The volunteer responds that he is unable to check their passports — only immigration personnel can — and that it will only take five minutes. The clock on the wall says 2am. The women grudgingly oblige, change into t-shirts and shorts and go downstairs with a Rela volunteer.

Rela’s ark

Watch videos of Rela’s raid here

On the street downstairs, the women are asked to line up with the other migrants that have been ushered down from nearby apartments. The Rela volunteers ask the migrants to hold their documents. Some people are holding up Malaysian ICs. When a journalist asks about this, Rela volunteers explain that these people were staying with migrants and are thus “suspicious”. Their ICs will be checked by the National Registration Department, whose officers are also part of the night’s raid.

The men and women are lined up, two by two. Some look disorientated or confused, some anxious and annoyed, and some fearful. Accompanied by three Rela women volunteers and a few more Rela men volunteers, the group walk together towards a main post set up by the Malaysian Immigration Department and Rela for the night. During that five-minute walk, sounds of Rela volunteers fill the night. They shout for doors to be opened, for documents to be shown, and at migrants running away. The rest of the neighbourhood is asleep.

People waiting for documents to be processed

The main post is at a corner of some shop houses, two doors from a nightclub that is playing loud techno music. Three immigration officers sit at a portable table. They have a briefcase with a laptop inside it. Beside them, rows upon rows of migrants are made to squat in line. Rela volunteers collect the documents from the migrants and bring them to the immigration officers. The officers then type out the numbers on the documents into their laptop. If the document — whether it is a passport or work permit — does not show up in their machine, the document is considered invalid and thrown into a plastic bag. The person who owns that document will be hauled into one of the three trucks there — two for men, one for women.

Arrested migrants waiting in trucks

The truck looks exactly like the ones used for prisoners — with planks for seats and grills all around. An Indonesian man in the truck is very upset — he says he has been paying around RM3,000 every year for his work permit. He shows his work permit card for the past three years that proves he has been working in Malaysia and says it has never given him problems.

This year, however, his boss gave him the I-Kad instead of the usual work permit. The immigration officer didn’t tell him what was wrong with his I-Kad, just hauled him up the truck. He didn’t get a chance to borrow someone’s phone to call his employer, who is holding his original passport. He says he tried to talk to a Rela volunteer guarding his truck, and was told to keep quiet and stay in the truck.

Raid leaders Johan and Aminuddin

“The quota for tonight is 50 people. We have surpassed it already — it’s time to close shop,” says an officer who identifies himself as Major Aminuddin. He is the top man for tonight’s raid. He points at his watch — it is now 3am. As the briefcase is being packed, a man arrives, seeking to release his employees. Two women come down from the truck and go off with the man after 10 minutes of negotiations with Rela and immigration. Meanwhile, the people whose documents check out are given back their documents and are told they can now go home. They happily disperse into the quiet night. The trucks that are crammed with people now head back to Rela’s office.

Women waiting in rela's officeBack at the office

At the office, Rela volunteers segregate the migrants into rows according to nationality. “It is for documentation purposes,” says a volunteer. “I am a refugee,” says a Myanmarese man repeatedly to anyone who is near enough to listen, and repeats the number of his registration card issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Three Rela volunteers come over to reprimand him for not keeping quiet.

Just three hours before this, before heading off for the raid, an officer who identified himself as Lieutenant Johan said, “If the person holds a UNHCR card, he [or she] will be released.” But there are UNHCR cards in the plastic bag containing the “invalid” documents and the owners of the cards, mainly Myamarese, are squatting among the migrants here.

Rela officer telling a person 'you sit there'

When asked about this, Johan says that it is the jurisdiction of the immigration department — if immigration says bring them in, Rela has to bring them in. The documentation here is to be filed as a police report, and then all those rounded up will be taken to the Lenggeng detention camp.

A man, squatting at the back, holds himself tightly and shivers. No one takes any notice. He continues squatting and shivering — he does not have the right documents. favicon

Mien Ly is an independent filmmaker, and went on the raid as a translator for a documentary filmmaker from Australia. She has been given permission by the filmmaker to write about her experience. Before she witnessed the raid, a refugee activist from Malaysian human rights organisation Suaram told her that Rela would be on their best behaviour when being watched by the media.

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29 Responses to “A night out with Rela”

  1. siew eng says:

    This is “best behaviour”? And what’s with that immediate rejection of documents based on fallible computer data processing?

    We’re paying these thugs money to harass disadvantaged peoples whose only crime was to try to seek a better life for themselves here by earning an honest living?

    Rela surely rates as one of the ugliest Malaysians. Hope the documentary will expose Malaysia further to tourists who come for a “Truly Asia” experience.

  2. Z00L says:

    Well, some time ago, I heard Malaysians complain about illegal immigrants going rampant, pick-pocketing, molesting, robbing and [committing] many other unwanted acts in Malaysia.

    Don’t you think Rela is doing some good here?

  3. Lee says:

    Try filming in secret without informing Rela or immigration about it. You will get a better picture of what is happening.

    Also follow through with what happens to those who are detained to get a complete picture or true story.

  4. Orang Asing says:

    Shocking revelation. Why do we have to assume guilt over innocence?

    And since we’re on the topic, some questions to ponder upon… Isn’t there a law that’ll punish […] employers that employ Pati? Isn’t the law supposed to be enough deterrent? Why not raid workplaces that harbour these people? Why “quota”? Enough to cover payment of overtime by these [government] officers and Rela [officers’] allowances?

    The government could have done a better job. Unfortunately, this is Malaysia…

  5. frags says:

    What a disgrace. Is this how humans treat other humans? By conducting raids and hauling them up like slaves? This is no different from what the SS did to the Jews.

    And detention camps… Need I say more?

  6. Nicholas Aw says:

    An eye opener, Mien Ly. Rela is nothing more than a bunch of licensed bullies. Instead of supporting the regular uniformed enforcement officers in carrying out policing work, they are abusing their powers and painting a negative image by their often inhumane actions.

    Alas! The suspected immigrants and even a few innocent ones dare not argue for fear of being victimised.

    I wonder whether those recruited as Rela members undergo Special Branch vetting? And is basic training for Rela personnel done professionally? From negative news reports involving Rela, I doubt they undergo strict vetting and professional training.

  7. Wiz says:

    My God, they are treating people like livestock and simply destroying people’s properties.

  8. kkitsam says:

    This is MALAYSIA, truly Asia. Welcome to the true world of Malaysia.

  9. Kelvin Chong says:

    You never know the experience of being rough-handed until [you’ve] really experienced it. At [midnight], while crossing [the] Kosovan border to Serbia this year in February, a friend and I were arrested. The officers neither spoke English nor ATTEMPTED to communicate with us. We were handcuffed, and then loaded into a truck and travelled a whole hour to the nearest town from the border in that condition. The ordeal was scary to tell the truth. But we were just two tourists travelling, and if they had only asked us, we would have shown them [proof] of it without any problems.

    Seeing those [Rela raid] pictures brought back some memories. I agree that we should always have a healthy attitude to assume innocence over guilt. These Rela officers charge into houses and immediately attempt to “mark their territory” by using loud voices, bellowing and totally [making] a nuisance of themselves.

    What a disgrace.

  10. t says:

    Burmese not Myanmarese.

  11. med says:

    Z00L, most robbers, rapists, etc are locals and (unfortunately) some Indonesians (I reckon there are two million Indonesians in Malaysia). Indonesians don’t get harassed much, and many of them have MyKads because of corruption. The other migrants are generally here to work and do not tend to cause trouble.

  12. Michael Lee says:

    I think not all Rela [personnel] are bad … not all of them commit crimes, and working as an enforcement team I think it is sometimes hard to tell who is genuine and who is not. Sometimes they might encounter violent illegals. The best option is for human rights [groups] to send people as observers.

  13. wlc says:

    This really is an eye-opener. Such a rough and crude way to flush out immigrants. And as someone else said: this is their best behaviour?!

  14. davis says:

    Who do Rela answer to? Why do we need Rela? Because the police and the immigration dept are unable to do their work? The conduct of Rela volunteers can be likened to that of vigilante.

  15. Dear friends,

    Thank you for your voice, love and kindness for Myanmar migrants and refugees in Malaysia. We don’t wish anyone to become a refugee…For everything, there is a reflection. A refugee’s life is bad. Nobody likes to be a refugee! There is a reason why. You can see how they are suffering, but it is not easy to understand their life because you are far away from us.

    With best regards,
    Myanmar Refugees

  16. davis says:

    Prayer before setting out. Merciful Creator. We pray that you grant us strength to resist the temptions of compassion, forbearance and humanity. Grant us the conviction that we are the righteous and the mighty and that we are doing Thy work. Merciful Creator, we, and only we, are Your children. Amen.

  17. Goh Hung Chung says:

    Rela is nothing more than a gang of perverts and petty thieves. They get their kicks from harrassing immigrants, and from stealing their possessions, e.g. handphones, jewellery, etc. Their arrogant behaviour stems from the belief that the bumiputera has the right to do as they wish in Malaysia, including stealing and bullying the weak. A truly uneducated lot lacking in morals.

  18. Tensa says:

    LOL, you guys are [kidding]? That’s how it works..or you want Rela to catch people with a smile? Don’t try to be a nerd, LOL. That’s their job, they aren’t [bullies], they [are] doing their job and it’s [the] right thing they do.

    [For] example, [if] a bad guy [approaches] with a smile, what [would] you will think? Oh, this guy is nice..LMFAO, guys.

    Even a police [officer] will bring you to the station if [you are a] suspect. ROFL, you guys want [the] police [to] do house visits? LMFAO.

  19. Ida Bakar says:

    Rela brings out the worst quality that any Malay(sian) can have – arrogance masking as pride, cruelty disguised as practicality, not to mention lacking in any sense of decorum. They think they are above any human decency in the course of their so-called duty. They are nothing but thugs and perverts given too much power not matched by their intelligence or integrity. They are the beginings of a paramilitary group in a fascist state.

  20. lkh says:

    There is evidence that Rela has been useful in helping alleviate social chaos caused by illegal immigrants overstaying in Malaysia. Only certain malicious [personnel] are prompting [this response from the public]. The Malaysian internal affairs authority needs to set up effective measures to curb the abuse of power by certain bad characters who victimise immigrants.

    It is saddening to read this article and some of the comments. [Apparently] Rela’s [role] in [curbing] social chaos [has been an] unexpected contradiction: the volunteers [themselves] cause more problems to public.

  21. Khan says:

    I would kill anyone who disturbed me in the middle of [my sleep] … Malaysian Rela [are] abusing the human rights of hardworking immigrants. Civilised world, do something to protect migrants in Malaysia, please!

  22. u hku says:

    I have been in Malaysia for nearly two years.The situation for immigrants are really the worst. Rela, they don’t have any respect [for] people even [those] who have legal permit. If they are in [a] bad mood, they would even destroy or burn your passport. They don’t care [about] anyone, they have special power to do this.

    But still, Malaysia is home to thousands of immigrants.

  23. Ko Harun says:

    Stop human rights violations.

    Burmese refugee.

  24. South east Asian says:

    I was travelling [through] Southeast Asia […] from 1980 to 1999. What I [saw was] there [was] no unity among [the countries]. And not enough education or training and no [honesty] in [the] immigration and police forces. And once they have [a] little money or [a] chance to bully others, they will use [their] full powers to bully.

    Thats what many southeast Asian countries are doing. Actually, they are [the] same [kind] of people, but because of extreme politicians and [religion], there [is] no unity but bullying [among] each other.

    I am [ashamed] to be a southeast Asian. We southeast Asians are slaves of Europe, Arabs or Chinese only, northing more than that. But [the] Europeans [give] more human rights then other [two]. So think and try to solve [among ourselves].

    No southeast Asian [country] [has] freedom yet from those [wrong] leaders.

  25. Myo Min says:

    Is the maltreatment inflicted only on the Burmese migrants? That is unfair. What can UNHCR do for these poor Burmese? Is that UN organ working only for Rohingyas? That [would be] a racial policy.

  26. frags says:

    The jury’s still out on whether illegal immigrants are criminals, mind you. And they are treated worse than local criminals. I think most Malaysians are apathetic to gross injustice since it doesn’t happen to them and they seem to perceive this as some sort of way of controlling crime and chaos.

    Misguided to say the least. I guess we love to find scapegoats to all our problems.

  27. Thank you for your good watch and [for] publishing [this] [for the world to see]. Any refugees issues [or] questions, pease [contact me]:

    Mr Zafar Ahmad
    President of Myanmar Ethnic Rohingya Human Rights Organization Malaysia (MERHROM)
    E-mail:[email protected]
    Mobile Number: +6016-682 7287

  28. r-khaing says:

    Need to publish all of [these] stories […] including migrant worker cases.

  29. Pau says:

    It still seems to be happening … I’ve been arrested by the Rela, two months before I was resettled in the US in 2007. I was detained at the Rela office for about 10 hours until the UNHCR officer came and requested for them to release me.

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