8/30/02

Protesters burn flag over Malaysian immigration crackdown
as diplomacy aims to stem rising rhetoric

By PAUL ALEXANDER
The Associated Press

MANILA, Philippines (AP) -- Demonstrators burned Malaysian flags in Indonesia and the Philippines on Friday to protest their Southeast Asian neighbor's crackdown on illegal immigrants.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar called the demonstrators "insolent" and accused them of being ungrateful because his country had allowed so many migrants to work there.
Underscoring the sensitive nature of the growing dispute, former Philippine leader Fidel Ramos rebuffed President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's plan to send him as a personal emissary to Malaysia to discuss better treatment of Filipinos being deported from the state of Sabah.
Arroyo then called Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad herself.
"She raised her concerns about the plight of the deportees, and they had substantial agreement on what needs to be done," Arroyo spokesman Ignacio Bunye Bunye said. The president was to make a statement on radio and television Saturday.
About 50 demonstrators, some shouting "Go to Hell, Malaysia," gathered outside the Malaysian Embassy in the Indonesian capital Jakarta. A Labor Ministry official said at least 25 Indonesian illegal workers have died in Indonesian refugee centers in the last month.
They were among 22,000 illegal workers who have been stranded for weeks in tents and government buildings in Indonesia's town of Nunukan, near Sabah on Borneo.
Both Indonesia and the Philippines say they respect Malaysia's right to implement new laws cracking down on illegal migrants. They have expressed concerns, however, about the treatment of illegal immigrants trying to leave or being expelled.
Malaysian authorities have been enforcing new laws that allow caning, imprisonment and large fines for illegal foreign workers since Aug. 1 in a crackdown partly motivated by security concerns. More than 300,000 migrants, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, have fled Malaysia in recent months to escape the new penalties.
Malaysia has become a magnet for migrants fleeing poverty or violence in their home countries in the region. Hundreds of thousands of migrants work legally but officials say many more remain illegally, despite the crackdown.
Deportations from Malaysia were being conducted "as humanely as possible under the circumstance," Syed Hamid said, adding that the large numbers of illegal migrants made the task difficult.
Public furor has risen steadily in the Philippines since the government said earlier this week that three children died while being deported. One senator called it ethnic cleansing, and the anger has been fueled by media interviews with deportees claiming migrant villages were torched and detainees were given inadequate food and water.
Henry Atilliero, a 44-year-old Filipino deportee from Sandakan, said he was held in a cramped cell with meals of two small pieces of bread and a small cup of tea for breakfast and lunch and small amounts of rice and two pieces of fish for dinner.
"I won't return," Atilliero said, adding that he plans to go home to join his wife and two children, who earlier left Malaysia voluntarily. "I don't know what will happen to me. I leave it to fate."
Mujib Daje, 25, an electrician who has lived for years in Malaysia's Kota Kinabalu, showed reporters dark blue welts on his back. He claimed Malaysian officials in a detention center were trying to break up a fight and whipped all the 100 Filipinos being held there with a rattan cane.
"There were only two men involved in the brawl, but all of us were whipped," Daje said. "I won't return there. It's like hell."
About three dozen protesters stomped on and burned a Malaysian flag outside the Malaysian Embassy in the Philippine capital. They also burned photographs of Mahathir.
"What you did is un-Islamic," protest leader Mohammad Ersad Manli said.
Some Philippine protesters have called Malaysia ungrateful after using cheap illegal migrants to help build the country into one of Southeast Asia's wealthiest nations. But Syed Hamid said the Filipinos were the ones who were ungrateful.
"They have acted in an uncivilized way," Syed Hamid said. "Have they forgotten this is the place that their countrymen earn a living? Is this how they show their appreciation?"
The Philippine government formally protested this week over the alleged mistreatment of deportees. A Philippine government commission on human rights has started investigating the claims and would complain to the U.N. High Commission for Human Rights if it finds strong evidence.
Malaysian authorities have denied overcrowding or inadequate food. But on Thursday, Malaysian Deputy Home Minister Zainal Abidin Zinwas said the government would investigate the Filipino claims.