Malaysia's Terrorism Raids are Making Life Harder for Its South Asian Community

The country's hunting for ISIS supporters. But it's rounding up South Asian migrants, residents, and citizens who've done nothing wrong in the process.
August 11, 2017, 7:00am
Image courtesy THE STARTV.COM via Reuters

Malaysian authorities, some of them armed with assault rifles, descended on a popular South Asian neighborhood in Kuala Lumpur earlier this week, detaining more than 400 people in what the local press called the country's biggest anti-terrorism raid in recent history.

But it wasn't really an anti-terrorism raid at all. The operation was reportedly meant to find and arrest 16 individuals who were deported to Malaysia after being caught trying to join ISIS by Turkish authorities. More than 200 officers, most of them police and military, swept through KL's Masjid India community, detaining 408 people, the vast majority of them immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India.


"Our operations are focused on finding and taking action against foreigners with connections to terrorism, especially those linked to activities in Syria," Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, Malaysian police counter-terrorism division chief, told Reuters. "We are worried about these Syria-linked elements being in Malaysia."

The officers found one person making fraudulent passports and 133 others who were in Malaysia without the proper immigration paperwork. And how many terrorists did they find? None.

That didn't stop Malaysia's government-linked media from reporting the raid as a massive terrorist sweep. The Malay Mail covered the raid with a front-page headline reading, "Fortifying KL." The New Straits Times wrote, "400 Detained In Terror Swoop." The concern, the press reported, was that these ISIS sympathizers would stage a terrorist attack at the coming SEA Games.

"The threats are imminent," Mohamed Fuzi Harun, the police special branch chief, told local media. "We cannot be complacent, that's why we are taking proactive measures… We're basically doing everything we can to ensure public order. We want these militants to know that we're coming for them and we're coming down hard."

But the raid, which reportedly went door-to-door, checking every apartment in a 42-story condominium tower, also sent a strong signal to someone else—the country's beleaguered South Asian community.

Ethnic Indians make up about 7 percent of Malaysia's population, based on official government census data, but unofficial estimates place that number close to 20 percent. The ethnic Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities are smaller.


The Indian community has historically suffered widespread discrimination in Malaysia, where some refuse to admit they are even actually Malaysians, preferring to use the epithet "asing tanpa izin"—or "foreigners without permission"—instead.

It's a country where landlords have turned away Indian renters because their "cooking stinks." A place where a popular novel that's required reading in Malaysian high schools once described the country's Indian population as members of India's "pariah caste," before the line was removed amid protest.

It's a country where hundreds of police and military can indiscriminately sweep an entire South Asian neighborhood under the guise of an anti-terrorism raid, detaining and questioning 275 people who were released within hours because they had done absolutely nothing wrong.

So who was caught breaking the law? Most of the 133 people detained by authorities were undocumented Bangladeshi migrant workers. Malaysia relies heavily on migrant labor to work in its construction, agricultural, and service industries. Why? Because Malaysia is a middle-income country in a part of the world where many of its neighbors fall lower on the economic scale.

The wealth disparity attracts millions of migrant workers, the vast majority of which are undocumented and have few protections. They are routinely subject to abuses by employers, immigration agents, and police. Thousands of migrants have complained of mistreatment and abuse in recent years, according to a report compiled by the Migrant Workers Resource Centre.


South Asian migrants have been the focus of harsh immigration crack downs in recent years, according to an official from Tenaganita, a migrant rights NGO. Aegile Fernandez, the NGO's director, urged the government to stop targeting migrant worker communities in raids. Malaysian officials should instead work to combat the people smugglers and corrupt authorities who prey the community.

"They were just victims," Aegile told VICE. "They paid a lot of money to enter the country. But once they able to work they get huge amount of debt."

The deputy secretary of Malaysia's leftist Parti Sosialis Malaysia (Socialist Party of Malaysia) criticized the police for targeting such a wide area in this recent immigration sweep. R Mohana Rani told VICE that the police routinely use clean sweeps like this to round up migrant workers, handing them off to immigration officials who hold them in crowded detention centers for months on end.

"We note the seriousness of the possibility of having a terrorist among the, but the operation seems discriminatory toward the migrant community," Mohana Rani told VICE. "The police should enhance their intelligence operations so they can target specific areas."

More than 100 undocumented migrants have died in Malaysia's immigration detention centers in the past two years, according to an investigation by Reuters. Most of the dead were from Myanmar—there's a large community of ethnic minority Rohingya, Kachin, Karin, and Wa asylum seekers living in Malaysia. The second-largest group were Bangladeshis. Indonesians, Indians, and Pakistanis followed in third, fourth, and fifth place.

Despite the criticism, the raids will likely continue. Bukit Aman Special Branch Counter-Terrorism Division head Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told local media that additional sweeps will be conducted in Kedah, a border state near Thailand's restive south, and Terengganu, a state in Malaysia's conservative Muslim heartlands.

"The operation today is the first of many that we are going to conduct in conjunction with the Sea Games," Ayob said. "Focus will be on the Klang Valley and states hosting the games."

The 16 suspected ISIS sympathizers deported from Turkey remained at large. Until they're caught, Malaysian authorities will likely remain on-edge, according to one expert. Ridlwan Habib was less critical of the raids, telling VICE that they were a sign of vigilance, not paranoia. The conflict in the Southern Philippines has many in Southeast Asia concerned over the potential emergence of a second front in the war against ISIS. The threat, he said, is very real.

"The anxiety all over Southeast Asia is very visible," Ridlwan told VICE. "Indications are that ISIS is targeting Southeast Asia as their next base."