A government commission probing the 2015 discovery of mass graves of Rohingya and Bangladeshis at human-smuggling camps along Malaysia’s border with Thailand said Tuesday it had concluded with testimony after calling 48 witnesses over 17 days of hearings since April.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) would spend the next few months preparing a report on what happened in the camps near Wang Kelian, a border town in Perlis state, chairman Arifin Zakaria announced.
“We have more or less exhausted whatever is available to us and I don’t think we will be calling any other witnesses,” Arifin told reporters on Tuesday, a day after Khalid Abu Bakar, the Malaysian national police chief at the time of the gruesome discoveries in the jungle, appeared before the panel.
“The RCI is one of the methods for us to prepare the report, by gathering information from witnesses who had knowledge of what actually transpired,” said Arifin, a former Malaysian chief justice. “After today, we will have meetings to prepare the report, which will be presented to the king in early September with our recommendations.”
He said police did their best to assist the panel, but he did not know if the report would be released to the public once the commission handed it to the king.
“It is up to the government’s discretion. We will forward the report to the officials,” Arifin said.
While the panel was satisfied with the testimony received, members could not question Thai witnesses, he said. The camps and graves were near the northern border with Thailand, where similar discoveries were made in 2015.
“I would like to get information from witnesses in Thailand, but there was no cooperation from them. It is quite difficult and we do not have the power to summon them,” Arifin said.
The final witness, police Superintendent Woon Tan Seng testified on Tuesday that victims and witnesses had been reluctant to come forward, hindering the investigation, according to national news service Bernama. The deaths at the camps could have been caused by illness, he also said, noting the conditions in the jungle and lack of food.
“Admittedly some witnesses said they were whipped. There were bruises and bandages but the injuries in my view were not the cause of the deaths,” Bernama quoted him as saying.
139 mass graves
RCI Deputy Chairman Norian Mai, a former police inspector-general, said the panel could recommend that authorities re-open investigations into the case.
“However, this would depend on our findings and discussions with other panel members,” he said.
In January 2015, Malaysian authorities found 139 mass graves and 28 abandoned camps scattered near the rocky hills along the Thai border at Bukit Wang Burma in Wang Kelian, but exhumed the bodies four months later.
More than 100 skeletal remains, believed to be those of member of Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority, were found in the graves. Some of the bodies belonged to undocumented migrants from Bangladesh.
In a 121-page joint report filed in March by Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission and legal activist group Fortify Rights, the government at the time was criticized for the delayed investigation and a lack of action against the human smuggler who ran the camps.
Authorities under Malaysia’s 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 because of a lack of evidence.
Four foreigners – two Myanmar nationals, a Bangladeshi and a Thai – were convicted on human trafficking charges and remain jailed. Human traffickers apparently held Rohingya and others captive in the camps while extorting payments from their families.
In Thailand, the government tried 102 people and convicted 62 of them, including a former three-star army general on charges linked to human trafficking as a result of discoveries there.
Testifying on Monday, Khalid Abu Bakar, who served as inspector general of police when the graves were discovered on Jan. 19, 2015, defended police for not acting more swiftly after the camps were found.
“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,” said Khalid, the former Police Inspector-General testified, referring to then-Perlis police chief Zul Aznam Haron, who testified earlier.
The panel previously heard from state police Battalion 3 Company B commander Joeking M. Marian Anthony who said he and his men were ordered to destroy all photos from the site, according to media reports. It also heard from a special forces member, Mat Ten, who discovered the camps on Jan. 19, 2015.
In addition, several witnesses from the Police Force special branch testified behind closed doors.
The panel, especially Arifin and Norian, occasionally clashed with witnesses especially when focusing on the lapse in time between the discovery of the camps and the reporting on corpses being found four months later.
Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan government, which came to power through elections in May 2018, appointed the seven-member RCI in March, saying that the graves and camps at Wang Kelian needed to be investigated more closely because “many people were not satisfied” with the probe carried out under the previous government.
When Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin introduced the RCI panel three months ago, he assured the public that Pakatan was taking the Wang Kelian case to the highest level, and the panel would look into allegations of cover-up during the older investigation.
The commission was being formed, he said at the time, so that in the future, “no one can say that they are not satisfied and question Malaysia’s commitment on human rights.”
“So even though it is late, it is never too late to get to the bottom of this,” Muhyiddin said at the time.