Malaysia’s former police chief defended his department for not acting more swiftly in investigating mass graves at human-smuggling camps on the country’s northern border in 2015, as he testified for the first time Monday before a government commission on the macabre discovery.
Investigators first needed to determine if the crime scene holding the graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshis was inside Malaysian territory or on the Thai side of the frontier, Khalid Abu Bakar told the Royal Commission of Inquiry. However, an ex-police commander in the area had testified earlier that he was ordered to stay away from the site in the jungle near Wang Kelian – a border town in Perlis state – after sending a report about the discovery in January 2015.
“We couldn’t confirm if the location was in Malaysia or Thailand. So I instructed Zul Aznam to find out, because we didn’t want to act beyond our border, or it would be against the law,” Khalid, the former Police Inspector-General testified, referring to then-Perlis police chief Zul Aznam Haron.
“So my instruction then was to get more details about the discovery and who was involved. That was why I told him to ‘hold on,’” he told the commission in the nation’s administrative capital, Putrajaya.
Khalid’s testimony came after a 121-page joint report by Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission and Fortify Rights in March claimed there were gaps in the probe and possible obstruction of justice after authorities discovered the mass graves, from where 139 bodies were exhumed.
Until Khalid’s testimony on Monday, it was unclear why Malaysian police only publicized the discovery of a cluster of abandoned jungle camps in the border town more than three months later, days after news that the Thai police announced that they had unearthed 36 bodies from shallow graves on their side of the border.
Former Chief Justice Arifin Zakaria, the commission head, pressed Khalid to explain further why it took so long for police to confirm whether the area was within Malaysian territory.
“The process to identify the area could take merely an hour or a day. When we find something, we must cordon off the area and go to the crime scene to gather evidence,” Arifin told Khalid.
“However, when you told them to hold on, they never went into the site.”
Khalid replied that the police needed to be careful when conducting their probe as the issue would have diplomatic repercussions with neighboring Thailand.
During his testimony, Khalid also admitted that the discovery of the mass graves exposed Malaysia’s border security weaknesses, which he said could be improved by deploying more personnel and improving intelligence sharing with Thailand.
In April, retired Deputy Superintendent Sivanganam (also known as Thirumugan Sathisivam) told the Royal Commission that he was instructed by his superiors to stay away from the camp. Sivanganam was ground commander for the Malaysian police’s General Operations Force in the region when the jungle camp was discovered.
“I was forbidden from returning to that area and when the unit was redeployed, I was ordered to sit out,” he told the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI), which was formed by the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in early March and given six months to file a report into whether the previous government had carried out a thorough investigation. Mahathir’s government came to power through a general election in May 2018.
Khalid, who retired the same year as the nation’s police chief, was the 47th witness called to testify in the public hearing.
The discoveries of the mass graves and 28 jungle camps, where human smugglers kept people captive while reportedly extorting payments from their families, shocked Malaysians. In Thailand, the government has since tried 102 people and convicted 62 of them, including a former three-star army general.
In Malaysia, authorities under the previous government arrested 12 police officers and several foreign nationals. 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. Authorities said most of the victims who were killed were members of Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority and some were from Bangladesh.
At the time of the discovery of the camps, authorities detained 38 men believed to be “undocumented foreign migrants.” Authorities later found out that the migrants were not linked to human traffickers.
In Monday’s testimony, Khalid said that although the matter was never brought to the National Security Council, he said he had notified then-Prime Minister Najib Razak and former Home Minister Ahmad. Najib and Ahmad ordered the police to get more information about the syndicate, Khalid testified.
“The prime minister in particular was very concerned if our authorities were involved, because several Thai authorities were detained in their country,” Khalid said. “But until today, we are still unable to prove that our men had any involvement.”