A Malaysian police commander testified Thursday that he was ordered to stay away from a human trafficking camp and mass graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshis found near the Thai border in January 2015 after he sent a report about the discovery.
Now retired Deputy Superintendent Sivanganam (alias Thirumugan Sathisivam), was ground commander for the Malaysian police’s General Operations Force (GOF) in the region when the camp in the jungle outside Wang Kelian was discovered on Jan. 19, 2015.
For reasons that remain unclear, police only publicized the discovery of the camp more than three months later, days after news of the grim discovery of mass graves at a similar trafficking camp on the Thai side of the border made international headlines.
“I was forbidden from returning to that area and when the unit was redeployed, I was ordered to sit out,” said Sivanganam while testifying before a Royal Commission of Inquiry on the second day of its first hearings and investigation into the circumstances that led to 106 corpses being unearthed from the Wang Kelian camp in May 2015.
The RCI, formed by Malaysia’s new government in early March and given six months to file a report, is scheduled to hear testimony from a district police chief and special branch officer when the hearing resumes on April 22, but members did not say if additional hearings would be scheduled.
Weeks after the RCI’s formation, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia and legal activist group Fortify Rights questioned why authorities waited so long to allow the removal of the corpses found in the jungle. The groups released a joint 121-page report, “Sold Like Fish,” based on their own multi-year investigation and more than 270 interviews, which alleged that the delay hindered a proper investigation.
‘Undocumented foreign migrants’
At the time of the discovery of the camp outside of Wang Kelian in northern Perlis state, authorities detained 38 men whom they suspected of being “undocumented foreign migrants” but were not linked to human traffickers.
When the public finally learned about the camps and graves in May 2015, reports at the time said the camps contained pens likely used as cages to house the trafficking victims, including Rohingya and Bangladeshis.
Days earlier in the same month, Thai officials announced that similar graves were found at an abandoned camp in the jungle on their side of Thailand’s frontier with Malaysia. Since then, the Thai government tried 102 individuals and convicted 62, including a former three-star general.
In Malaysia, authorities under the previous government arrested 12 police officers and several foreign nationals in connection with the Wang Kelian case. However in 2017, then-Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told reporters that the officers had been released from custody due to lack of evidence. Four foreigners – two Myanmar nationals, a Bangladeshi and a Thai – were convicted on human trafficking charges and remain jailed.
During the first day of hearings on Wednesday, RCI members were told about how personnel found the campsite by following human tracks and a soapy stream, which led them to a river and a campsite with wooden fixtures resembling guard towers and a shop.
“I also saw a man, believed to be a Thai, inside one of the towers. At this time, I didn’t see any of the illegal immigrants. But I heard noises from a generator ... I think they were producing drugs at the camp,” GOF member Cpl. Mat Ten testified, according to the New Straits Times.
In his testimony on Thursday, Sivanganam said he sent a report to officials on Jan. 22, 2015, that included a tip received from a local source, who claimed that a human trafficking syndicate had approached him and others to help transport victims from the Wang Kelian area.
The source, according to Sivanganam’s report, had indicated that a local trader called “Aziz” or “Azim” served as a middle man to assist with local authorities in the area.
“I can only identify Aziz as the middle man. But I did not check anything else,” Sivanganam testified. “I then channeled all the information to the Northern Brigade, Perlis Police chief, Northern Border Intelligence Unit and National Security Council in an incident report on Jan.22, 2015.”
He said he also passed the report to the Malaysia Human Rights Commission (Suhakam).
Sivanganam, who retired from the GOF a few months after the operation, testified that the March 2015 redeployment was similar to routine duties he had carried out beginning in 2009. The GOF serves as a light infantry arm of the Royal Malaysia Police.
Asked if he questioned his superior about being pulled from duty, he responded, “We just follow orders.”
In addition, Sivanganam said he had participated in destroying the campsite on Jan. 20, 2015. That order was given by the state deputy police chief to his B Company commander, Joeking M. Marian Anthony. The discovery of about 30 graves forced troops to stop the destruction.
“I immediately directed my team to stop. We lodged a report of the incident at IPD Padang Besar on Jan. 22. We left the graves for the IPK (state police), IPD and forensics to handle,” he told investigators.
Joeking, who testified ahead of Sivanganam, said he was ordered to get rid of photos of the camp a couple of months after he participated in its destruction.
“There was a time between March and April 2015 where I received instructions from the commanding officer ordering anyone within the team to destroy photos in their possession related to Wang Kelian,” Joeking said, adding the officer “asked for the photos to be stored only at the battalion office.”