We speak to undercover journalist Mahi Ramakrishnan about her documentary 'Bou’ that explores human trafficking and violence in Southeast Asia
Mahi Ramakrishnan, who has spent the last ten years undercover investigating human trafficking in Southeast Asia, has just released her latest film Bou, meaning “bride” in the Rohingya language. The short, award-winning doc looks at the abuses that children fleeing genocide in Rakhine state are subject to at the hands of human traffickers. She interviews girls who have been sexually abused and sold as child brides to Rohingya refugee men living in Malaysia and her investigation takes her to the home of a human trafficker who explains how immigration officials are bribed at ‘KLIA’, Malaysia’s shining international airport, a jewel in the crown of Malaysia’s proud, emerging economy. The Malaysian government are keen to project an image of progressiveness to the outside world, and so, like with so many other dissidents, they clamped down on her film, forcing her to censor it.
Malaysia is an impressive imagining of multiculturalism – in the hyper-modern Kuala Lumpur many people speak three languages fluently. Trendy KLites blend Mandarin, Hindi and English all in one sentence, creating their own dialect. But this is also a country where officials take bribes, that allows children to be trafficked into the country and is not a signatory of The UN Refugee Convention. We spoke to Ramakrishnan to find out more.
You have been working with the Rohingya for 11 years. In your own words - what is currently happening in Myanmar?
Mahi Ramakrishnan: I know that a lot of people who look at the escalation of violence see it as a religious war, but I see it as a war to control resources and logistics. The Burmese military has been perpetrating violence against every one of the 136 ethnic groups including the Rohingya; Kachin, and Chin women have been subjected to rape and sexual assault while the men are murdered. When you look at Rakhine you see that it’s a place which is really rich with natural resources, particularly gas. It is almost like an intermediary place to the gas line with China. There is interest from the Chinese and also the Indians. There are land grab cases and it’s actually a rogue government, all it wants is to control resources, logistics and access to land.
One of the girls speaks about being beaten three times a month by her husband. What do you think causes this horrific behaviour?
Mahi Ramakrishnan: I think that they behave like this because of the lack of legal status and recognition in Malaysia. They can’t really get a job, they can’t get a bank account or a loan, they don’t really have access to the kind of money that they need to run a household. It’s sheer frustration and the minute the wife asks for money for herself or baby milk they get angry and they beat her up.
But then in Burma there it strikes me that whatever violence the Burmese military are perpetrating to the Rohingya, the Rohingya men are copying that violence and repeating it against their women and children. It’s a deeply patriarchal society with a feudal mindset – women do not have a place in society unless it is in the home.
Despite this patriarchal system all the girls I spoke to still want to empower themselves and they tell me that if they can learn the Malay language or get skills training then they would work because they want to be financially independent.
“These traffickers feel so brilliant that they can get away with exerting this kind of violence on a person” – Mahi Ramakrishnan
One of the girls you interview says she was raped by sixty traffickers. Is this abuse about power?
Mahi Ramakrishnan: I think that it’s a combination of anger and power. She told me is that because no-one was coming to buy her freedom the traffickers got incredibly angry with her. They don’t want to keep them for long, they want to make the money quickly. Rape is always used as a weapon to exert power on the most subordinate right?
I saw real footage of a rape happening in a trafficking camp and it was horrific. There were three guys – one was raping her, one was talking to the rapist and one was filming the event and after she just gets up, brushes down her skirt, and walks away. These traffickers feel so brilliant that they can get away with exerting this kind of violence on a person.
You met one of the traffickers who has a family, is he also the victim of a broken system?
Mahi Ramakrishnan: I did not dwell on him or do any research on him so I won’t be able to answer that question. I just wanted to show that the more you up the enforcement then the more creative traffickers get. There is a new trafficking route where Bangladeshis forge the passports, fly into KLIA and bribe their way through the airport. There are more than half a million who have gone to Cox’s Bazaar and now a lot of the children are at risk of being trafficked into Malaysia. For me the worrying fact was that they are being sold for sixteen thousand ringgit ( $ 3,800), a fee which is way beyond the means of any Rohingya men, so the question here is where are they going and who is the buyer?
Why don’t the Malaysian government recognise the Rohingya as refugees?
Mahi Ramakrishnan: When I spoke to a few members of parliament from the ruling party they told me that we cannot ratify the UN Refugee Convention because then it will open the flood gates and we will have people flocking into Malaysia, so I told them that people are already flocking into Malaysia.
Malaysia is not prepared to take full responsibility for refugees by signing the convention. However, it has allowed the refugees to stay here albeit the fact that they do get harassed, threatened and jailed. I think that if Malaysia wants to be progressive - even if they don’t sign the convention - they need a progressive refugee policy.
It seems that the way refugees are treated is incongruous with the fact that Malaysia is a very multicultural country.
Mahi Ramakrishnan: Racial unity, religious unity, it’s a multicultural society, is all brilliant on paper but in reality, everyone is at each other’s throat. The popularity of the ruling party in Malaysia has been dwindling which means that its grip on power is also slipping. The party has indulged in the play of religion and politics allowing for people, especially some religious groups, to get away with inflammatory comments about other ethnic groups scot-free.
How does this relate to the fact that the government has censored your film?
Mahi Ramakrishnan: They were not happy that the film shows there is corruption at KLIA or in the police when the Rohingya man has to pay them off on the way to work.
Anything the government deems creates a bad image for Malaysia is a no-no. The idea here isn’t to slam the country, just to show what is happening to these children and that there is a responsibility on behalf of the Malaysian government to look into more efficient enforcement at the airports. Unfortunately, by censoring the film they have taken away the opportunity for the government to look transparent.
It also takes away the creative license of filmmakers such as myself. If I need pre-approval to talk about something that is very crucial, my freedom as a filmmaker is being taken away from me and that needs to be challenged.
“By censoring the film they have taken away the opportunity for the government to look transparent” – Mahi Ramakrishnan
What does freedom of speech really look like in Malaysia if artists like yourself are being censored?
Mahi Ramakrishnan: You see the shrinking of the democratic space, civil society movements and street protests being clamped down, you see party opposition and prominent human rights activists being arrested. There is now a lawmaker in jail because of the ‘Bersih Rally’ (the rallies call for more transparent governance and to strengthen parliamentary democracy). So when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, even though it is enshrined in Malaysia's federal constitution, whether or not you can actually implement it, that’s another question.
Are you worried about where freedom of speech is going?
Mahi Ramakrishnan: I am. Particularly now that I see the Malaysian government is losing its grip on power. People are getting angry, questioning the structures of power, the prime minister, the violence of the police, the outcome of court cases and the judiciary. They are angry that civil society representatives, human rights activists, opposition politicians or lawyers are being jailed or nabbed or taken to court. The government will come down harder on people with no regards to freedom of speech because it needs to stay in power.
I know that the Malaysian prime minister's ‘One Malaysia’ slogan is all about ‘national integration through racial unity’ but it’s all mere rhetoric. If you really look at the crux of it, the most important thing to the powers that be is to keep ruling and keep being in power, and if that means that democratic space has to be shrunk, that some voices cannot be heard, then that’s the way that Malaysia will go.
‘Bou’ is currently unavailable but Mahi is hoping to bring her film to Europe in 2018.