World News

Volunteer security force defies critics in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia will not disband a 500,000-strong volunteer security force that was criticised this week for mistaking an Indonesian diplomat’s wife for an illegal immigrant, its chief said on Wednesday.

Rela, which calls itself the government’s “eyes and ears” and was originally set up in the 1960s to help fight a communist revolt, has been criticised for its lack of discipline and abusing the human rights of migrant workers.

“I admit there are a few Rela officers who may be high-handed,” Rela Director-General Zaidon Asmuni told Reuters in an interview.

“It will not be disbanded just because of a few bad hats. Rela is becoming a force to be reckoned with ... so there are groups trying to distract Rela by harping on human rights,” said the 51-year-old former immigration officer.

Wearing green uniforms and yellow berets, Rela groups launch raids everyday to trap illegal immigrants since being given such powers in 2005. Officers, of the rank of platoon commander and above, are allowed to carry firearms, while the rest use batons.

Zaidon, who reports to Malaysia’s home ministry, said Rela had rounded up 28,300 immigrants so far this year, against 25,000 in the whole of 2006. The government pays each Rela member just 4 ringgit ($1.18) a hour for such an operation.

Rela’s crackdown is winning support from Malaysians, who routinely blame foreigners for rising crime rates, which could emerge as a major issue in a general election widely expected to be called within months.

With Malaysians reluctant to take up menial jobs, there are nearly 3 million foreigners -- chiefly from Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Nepal -- working in Malaysia, some illegally.


New York-based Human Rights Watch has described Rela as a vigilante force set up to target foreigners.

In a May report, it listed cases in which Rela volunteers stole money from foreign workers, used excessive force, wrongly detained people and even helped developers to tear down the homes of 50 families.

Indonesian lawmakers on Tuesday called for more diplomatic action against Malaysia following two instances of what they saw as Rela excesses, as a row simmers between the neighbours over ownership of a popular folk song.

Jakarta protested on Monday after Rela members briefly detained the diplomat’s wife and broke into an Indonesian student’s home. Malaysia has denied the woman was detained.

Rela’s numbers surpass those of Malaysia’s police and military personnel put together, although critics say Rela members can hardly claim to be properly trained.

“A 10-day course and a uniform does not transform anyone into a professional overnight,” Malaysian rights group Aliran said.

“If the government is reluctant to disband Rela, perhaps it could consider a more constructive role for the volunteer corps, especially in times of national catastrophe and natural disaster.”