Mahi Ramakrishnan is an investigative filmmaker, journalist, and refugee rights activist. She is the founder of Beyond Borders, a non-profit organization that promotes and protects the rights of refugees, stateless persons, and asylum seekers in Malaysia.
TS: Could you tell me a little about yourself and the work you do as part of Beyond Borders Malaysia?
I am an investigative journalist and filmmaker. I began my work with refugees 17 years ago, because I got assigned to work on Rohingya news reports. I also got interested in this work because my grandfather was in the British army and was in Burma. He met and married a Rohingya woman and they ended up eloping. My grandmother (mom’s mom) never went back, so we don’t really know where she’s from, and I was never able to trace it. I didn’t have any interest actually, but when these assignments came about and I started talking to the Rohingya, I thought, “wow” these are my people. By and large. As I was doing this work, I realized that I always wanted to know a little more. I wanted to know the language, the culture, and I got sucked in, and I have not been able to come out of it.
When I was working for Time magazine, I was doing investigative journalism. My specialization was Islamic militancy. I covered Southeast Asia and had spoken to members of Jemaah Islamiyah, and members of other militant groups. I decided to do a film, “an idiot’s guide” to what is actually happening in Burma. This way people who do not know about the Rohingya crisis can watch it, and in about half an hour, gain a little more knowledge about it.
While I was working on the film, I realized that trafficking was very much a part of refugees fleeing into Malaysia. I met a trafficker in one of the camps. I interviewed the trafficker for the second film which looks at what actually happens to people when they are in transit, including the sexual, emotional, physical, mental abuse; the trafficking in itself. When I was doing that, I realized that a lot of children, especially girls were also being brought over. At times, both boys and girls are taken away and never seen again.
This work was just beginning to affect me mentally and there was very little money. Documentary films are not sexy, no one wants to give you a single cent, so I decided to just focus on these young girls. They are actually brought in as child brides, held in trafficking camps, and then they are sold off as child brides to the Rohingya men in Malaysia. Through this work, I realized that it’s not just the traffickers who are trafficking them. The Rohingya men in Malaysia are also negotiating payment terms and summoning child brides. In 2017, I released “Bou: (Bride).” It was selected for fourteen international film festivals and won nine international awards.
Also, when no one was given access, I managed to get myself access to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, so I have filmed and spoken to people there. It is really horrific. There are 100-120 toilets for thousands of people, a lack of clean water, and poor sanitation. In the past, the World Food Program was not really able to run its projects effectively. This is because everything has to go through a Burmese guy and that middleman is always connected to the Tatmadaw or to a politician (largely the junta anyway). If you send $100, chances are $70 of it will be taken away and the person it was intended for will get $30, if they are lucky.
TS: Have you heard from people since the February 1st coup? What have people’s responses been? What are conditions like on the ground?
We [Beyond Borders Malaysia] are actually in the midst of working with an associate partner in Burma. We have been working together to come up with an application run by the University of Queensland that looks at hate speech. It is done by the University of Queensland. Our goal is to build a focus group that will analyze the application questions that need to go in. Usually, applications don’t have a human figure associated with it, so we also decided that, say you are writing in and say that you have experienced all of this, at the end of it we will ask “ would like to speak to a real person about it?”
Yesterday, 23 people were killed in Myanmar, including a pregnant woman, so many people are really scared at this point in time. We have to stall this project for a while. I’ve been told that most of the activists and groups that have been active on the ground providing community support have been forced to go underground. With all the people taking to the streets, I am very worried that the Junta will just shoot everyone dead. It is a rogue government and a pariah state right now.
And what did Malaysia do? Malaysia was instrumental in bringing Burma back into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) fold, but what have you actually heard from Malaysia addressing what is going on. Yes, it condemned the coup, but it is a backdoor government that came into power via a coup condemning another backdoor government that has come in via a coup. Hello? (laughs). I don’t quite understand this.
Now, before we could even say “okay, you’re a backdoor government, but at least you have a little bit of spine left, you condemned the coup, before we could fully appreciate what was said, the government sent back 1,000+ people back to Burma. When we protested this the Immigration Department issued a statement essentially saying, “sorry folks, we have already sent them to Burma and they were so happy to be back and nobody actually coerced them to leave. And I was like, what is this about?
Malaysia has an added obligation because of its role in bringing Burma back into the ASEAN fold. I really think that ASEAN can and should play a bigger role in this type of situation. It is currently and has repeatedly proven itself to be a toothless tiger. No one wants to talk about anyone else because they have their own skeletons, so they do not want to condemn another government. At the end of the day, they also use this non-interference policy, which in itself is archaic, to justify not interfering into someone else’s affairs. However, it is no longer just Burma’s problem. It has spilled over into different countries, whether it is Bangladesh, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia.
They say you cannot meddle in another country’s affairs, you cannot talk about and critique another country’s political affairs, but you can meddle economically.
The fact that the Myanmar coup is very much against the ASEAN charter, but ASEAN is not saying anything concrete is wrong. There has not been any persistent, consistent, targeted lobby and pressure against Burma. It is really telling. There is the UN Security Council, but you also have China everywhere vetoing everything. When almost a million people fled from Burma to Bangladesh, was the UN able to do anything about it? Absolutely nothing. They talked and talked and talked.
Also, I am not in favor of economic sanctions. Yes, sanctions in the sense of an arms embargo and companies that are doing business need to sever their connections. You really need to make sure that beyond the borders opening, that there is a travel embargo on the military and on their children. Bank accounts should be frozen. This is horrible, but they are doing horrible things. Citizens who are studying overseas need to be sent back. You really need to take measures that have a significant impact on the Junta. Regular economic sanctions are not going to hurt them, it is just going to impact the poor people.
TS: Could you explain more about Malaysia’s relationship to Burma?
Most of the Burmese migrant workers in Malaysia are from Bangladesh. Here we easily have 3-4 million migrant workers and an additional 3-4 million undocumented migrant workers. Without them Malaysia’s economy would collapse. Industries such as construction and agriculture, rely on migrant workers. I need to do some more research, but I do believe even PETRONAS, Malaysia’s national petrol company, has businesses in Burma. There are many companies that do.
I went there three times in 2017, and saw that hotels were being built. On my first visit of the year, I saw the groundwork being laid and then when I came back a few months later they were already done. Burma at this point in time, provides huge business opportunities and the country is also filled with national resources. There is an argument that the persecution against the Rohingya, may not necessarily be because of religion, it could also be because of the control of resources. The Rakhine State is filled with energy reserves and other lucrative resources. Some say that while the junta currently train their arms against Rohingya, they may soon go after the ethnic Rakhine, (Buddhists) as well. At the end of the day, it is about the military junta and the politicians close to them, amassing wealth and controlling the available resources.
TS: What led you to found Beyond Borders Malaysia?
When I was creating my films about the Rohingya, I realized more needed to be done. I’m one person. I dislike accounts, auditing and keeping receipts, but I ultimately decided to set up an NGO. I spent all of 2018 whole year trying. My application was rejected time and time again because they said, you can’t use words like Rohingya, refugees, human rights, etc. So I came up with this long-winded Malay name, but we call ourselves “Beyond Borders Malaysia” and are known publicly as that.
Before creating Beyond Borders, I founded The Refugee Fest (6 years ago), because there is so much artistic talent amongst refugees. Also, every time I make a film or a news report, I get censored. I get the police after me and I get called in for questioning. So I thought, why don’t I use the performing arts as a base to talk about the same issues? For example, if you are talking about how dark and horrific being trafficked is, but you’re saying it in the form of a poem, the Special Branch leaves you alone.
That is how I ended up founding the festival. After three years it grew into something bigger. It became its own advocacy tool and rather political. Last year, we held it online because of the pandemic. I got a chance to interview Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, author, human rights defender, and film producer. Last year, I stepped down as festival director because I believe that the festival belongs to the refugees, and they should rightfully take ownership of it. Saleh Sepas, an Afghan theater director, who works on theatre of the oppressed, was selected as festival director. However, they will not let me go fully, so I’m still there to find money. I go from one embassy, one high commission to the other looking for funds.
I do not believe that just because you are working with refugees, they need to come and perform for free. Every time they perform we pay them 200 ringgit. It is a four day festival (Thursday-Sunday), so if you perform every day you get 800 ringgit.
I also want to set up an arts space. And if you ask me, Mahi, why are you suddenly going from all the dark, difficult, and dangerous films to an arts space?
- It gets you off the radar. Police are not on your back.
- It is an effective tool to build bridges between the refugees and Malaysian society. People tend to identify with poetry, music, dance, and theatre. They may not necessarily identify with the kind of persecution presented, but various art forms will resonate with them. I think of the performing arts as a way of connecting the two societies.
Publika is a little bit of an elitist space, but we initially held it there because they gave us the space for free and I was begging for everything. Later, I took the festival out of Publika and brought it into various local communities so that people there could experience the performances. Afterwards people came up to me and said, “you know if you cut me, our blood is the same. In Malaysia we are called ‘pendatang’ people who came, we are not really considered citizens. What happens if Malaysia boots us out, where will we go? How can we help these people? I may not have very much money, but I want to do something”
On the ground level, when it comes to human to human connection, I have come to understand that change is possible. On the policy level, the government has its own political agenda, but at the ground level, if we do work consistently and persistently things will change.
Overall, what we have done and continue to do is create avenues where refugees can use art as a way of speaking out, making it a political tool on its own, and also negotiating and talking to members of Parliament pushing for the right to work, education and healthcare.
TS: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work?
In the early days of Beyond Borders, I made it very clear that we will not do aid distribution. We are not experts and I have not had the proper training. However, when Covid and the lockdown started in March, we had no choice. By then the communities knew and trusted me, which is the most important thing. Even as a filmmaker, I used to stop filming and help with supplies, schools, clinics, whatever they needed. I did not know at the time that what I was doing was going to help me a few years down the line. I have had the honor of earning unconditional love and trust which has made it possible for us to go in and support communities with Covid relief.
Last year, we saw an unprecedented rise in xenophobia and hate speech against different refugee and migrant communities, with the Rohingya as the biggest target. It was very well choreographed and crafted, so we realized there were organizations and political figures behind it. Malaysia is not a great place for migrants, it never has been. We have seen hate speech in the past, but this time, the onslaught was unlike anything that has happened before.
Last year, the refugees were terrified to speak on panels because of what was happening, so every panel discussion had Malaysians speaking for and on their behalf. I decided to have one camera in my house showing an empty chair. There were four frames and one of them was the chair. That denoted the absence of the refugees who are very much present in the topics being discussed. It started a “Do you see the empty chair movement?” It went viral because people realized that I was trying to make a point.
I am a member of the Asia Pacific Partnership for Atrocity Prevention (APPAP), so I conducted research and published a paper looking at why this rise in hate speech was happening and who were the targets. I considered the refugees, migrant workers, and some Malaysians themselves, specifically the LGBT community.
This year the government has finally realized that we need a comprehensive health policy, after we were screaming about it last year, so they have decided that they will give free Covid-19 vaccines to everyone who makes up Malay society. When you hear the comments from Malaysians, it is appalling. They tell refugees to go die and ask the government to kick them out. They say, “why are we giving our vaccines to them? Who are they and why are they here? These people are taking away our resources.” We have not yet seen a huge increase in xenophobia this year, but it does not mean that xenophobic sentiments or hate speech has actually gone away.
As I was researching this topic, I studied the UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes. It clearly states that when a government or a state makes it impossible for a group of people to make enough money to survive, to afford food, shelter, and healthcare, when they restrict freedom of movement, because of who they are, those are early signs of genocide.
If you really look at the situation here, Malaysia has to a large extent denied refugees the right to work. The state has made it virtually impossible for certain groups of people to earn a living, to be able to take care of themselves, and to put food on their tables. If these are not early signs of genocide, I do not know what is.
TS: After doing so much advocacy work to help people in Malaysia and abroad, do you have advice for how people can better support and serve marginalized communities?
One big thing that I have noticed, and I constantly try to rectify it in my work with the refugee communities, is that usually, and legitimately so, you see NGOs, CSOS, and non-profit organizations, speaking for and on behalf of marginalized communities. In a way, this makes sense because it is often easier and safer for them to express certain sentiments. But I also think that things have to shift. We need to hold spaces and create opportunities for marginalized communities to speak for themselves.
That is what I do in my advocacy work. Two years ago, I went to Tenaganita, (an NGO). I asked them to put me on an advocacy project looking at the right to work, education, and healthcare for refugees. t is important that instead of us deciding what they might need, I wanted to change advocacy work a little bit and hear from refugees directly. I want to advocate for them to speak in front of members of Parliament, lawmakers, and ministers.
It is very important to understand and question, why is it that someone like you, a university graduate and someone who has had certain experiences, why is it that only you get to speak in front of a lawmaker? Why can’t a refugee also speak in front of a lawmaker? Why can’t we create opportunities and empower them? Why can’t we educate them and work alongside them, and push them to be the front voice?
I have learned this the hard way. You realize that when you speak to a lawmaker and when a refugee speaks to a lawmaker, it makes a huge difference. However much you try to understand, to articulate their aspirations, it is never the same, because they have gone through the trauma.
Over a weekend, we got community leaders together across the entire spectrum of refugee communities in Malaysia, and we asked, What is important to you? They told us the big three are: right to work, education, and healthcare. Within “right to work,” we asked, can you tell us the kind of policies that you would like to see the government create and enact?
We got Debbie Stothard, who is Mama Burma as I call her. She is Malaysian, but has lived and worked out of Bangkok for many years. She is an encyclopedia. She flew in to do workshops on “What is a policy paper? How do you write it? Why is it important? We also coordinated workshops where refugees worked with media groups and investigative reporters, to learn how to frame their messages.
If there is one thing that I can share, not advise, but share, it is to encourage CSOs, NGOs, activists, to actually sit down and talk to the marginalized communities, the affected communities, and see how opportunities can be created for them to speak up for themselves. You hold the space, you encourage them, and if they need some education or workshopping for things to be clearer, then you make all of that possible. But you ensure that the main voice, the main face that people see are the refugees.
Also, when you do work like this, it is important to be really observant about the impact it has on you. I did not catch this at first. There was a point where I used to cry at everything. I could be talking to you like this, and I would just start crying. Or I would see an old person crossing the road and start crying. I didn’t know what was happening and I didn’t have the knowledge to understand. When you work with people who have gone through so much, it has an impact on you because you are only human. On top of it I am a mother. There is also that little bit of guilt happening all the time. I can do this much for my child, but I can only do this much for someone else. You’re grappling with so many things. So two years ago, I was diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and bipolar II.
I do have to be really careful. When things become too overwhelming, and it is getting there, because now is a time where people are just frantic for money and food. I do not work on issues related to childbirth or rent because I really don’t have the capacity to find the money. When it comes to food, cooked food and food provisions, I do look for funds. Beyond Borders also helps by distributing food provisions or cooked food, buns and bread, anything that people give. Also, from March 1st to May 30th, we will be bringing food to frontline workers at Sungai Buloh Hospital. I also recently received a grant to make another film. So there is a lot going on. Everything can become overwhelming, so it is important for whoever it is that’s working to be very aware of what is happening to them. Mentally emotionally, and physically so that they can stop and get help faster than I did. My partner does similar work and he is incredible. He supports and helps me through all of it. When I take days off, I feel guilty, but I understand that I must be at my optimum to continue doing what I am doing.
TS: As you do this work, what motivates you? What keeps you going through the difficult moments?
Being a mother myself, it is very difficult for me to try and empower my children, to create opportunities for my children, and then to step back and say these other people can go screw themselves. It doesn’t happen, at least for me. I believe that every child needs the same opportunities and chances that my children get. I need to work towards making that possible for everyone.
It is not easy working with refugee communities or any vulnerable communities for that matter. There can be sticking points, differences of opinion, and overall it is just really difficult. But I always tell myself that if I give myself all the chances, if I give my children second, third, fourth, hundredth chances to come back to me, then I should be able to hold that space for refugees and other communities too.
You learn a lot from your children. Years ago, my son was failing across boarding school and he never thought he would go to university. However, I told him you need to just try. The first semester was a bit of a mess, but after that he just made a 180 degree turn. He got himself on two Dean’s Lists in the remaining two and a half years, and then went on to do his master’s at Monash University in a program that is 80% IT engineering and 20% business. This is a boy who never got beyond ten marks in math growing up. That was a big lesson for me. I understand that there are talents hidden within every person. I also always believe that there is good in everyone. I believe that if opportunities are given, if chances are given, every person will be able to realize their full potential. My children are my biggest teachers. I learn a lot from them and then I try to implement that in my work.
With my son I did not give up on him just because I am his mother. I believed in him too. Why can’t we do the same for every person that we meet? Why is it that we contain ourselves to only believing in our own children? Why can’t that be expanded to other people as well?
TS: Over the years, what are some challenges that you have encountered?
One of my and Beyond Borders’ biggest challenges is money. We are a small NGO, we don’t even have co-funding, so much of the work that I do is done for free. If you are friends with me on Facebook, every day you will see me appealing for funds for everything.
The Human Resources minister is my friend and he really is trying to push for progress surrounding the right to work. However, in order to develop comprehensive solutions we really need to engage in proper mapping. For example, in an area how many refugees are there, who are they (Afghan, Syrian, Rohingya, etc) , how many women, children, and what age group? From those numbers how many people can work? What is their education level? What are their skill sets? Can they enhance their skills through workshops and whatever? Then in those same areas, how many factories and businesses are there? How many employees do they need and what skills are needed for those jobs? Currently, when we advocate for the right to work, we have little data to answer these questions. We do not have records that say for example, ABC enterprise is interested in hiring 30 people, they have 20 car washes in the following locations.
Additionally, most refugees are not able to move freely in Malaysia. They can be stopped by police, and when the police know they are working, they often have to bribe them. A more conducive environment is to find jobs that are located close to where they live. We have been trying to do this, we have a paper, but we just don’t have the money. We really need to get the facts, the figures, and the statistics. If we can map all of this out, then when we and other organizations go and present a case before Parliament or a minister, we can actually say “let’s look at two specific areas under your jurisdiction. You’re the MP and this is the number of refugees there, this the number of companies, and this is the number of jobs.” My friend told me that if this can get done we can collaborate with the Human Resources Ministry and real change can occur. We just need money, so it is very frustrating. Because we can do that much more work if we had those statistics in hand.
My son has done small initiatives with Beyond Borders, to actually empower refugees, through technology and IT. He runs workshops on how to use WordPress to build a website, etc. When we do things like that, we make sure that we work with communities. My son has got all the patience like the Buddha. He works with them and he trains them to go and do interviews, get information, how do you harvest the information, but whatever we can do in terms of training on the job and also making sure that they are paid properly.
TS: Is there hope that eventually some of these efforts could be funded by the government?
No. There is a lot of talk, but not a lot of action. The right to work can be done in a jiffy. It has been done before. There is existing legal framework. That is what I have been pushing for. IMN13 under the Immigration Act actually allows the Minister of Home Affairs to just sign on the dotted line, give people an IMN13 card, and make sure that every other department and ministry knows about what is happening. That card will actually allow them the right to work. It will allow them to attend a Malaysian university to do postgraduate studies or the right to travel in and out of the country. They tried it before. The Syrians held a card called “Mahar.” However, it was not implemented. It is a beautiful card that is literally worthless.
The Malaysian government actually putting out money for this kind of stuff is not going to happen. It has to come from donors. People who have the money and know that this is really important. At the end of the day, whoever is working on these issues, needs to actually know what they are talking about. Right now, so much of this work is done on an ad hoc basis.
TS: Is there anything else you would like to share?
People always say, “oh the refugees are so lucky that they have you and they must learn a lot from you.” That is absolutely ridiculous. I learn so much from them. After all the trauma and all the persecution, having to leave their homes, having to flee internal war, having to leave behind family, not knowing if they are ever going to see them again, not being able to turn up for the funeral of their parents, those kinds of things. Despite all of these hardships, they have so much hope and confidence that tomorrow will be a better day. That things will change.
It is very easy after seventeen years of trying to bring about changes, to give up. To feel so frustrated and say I can’t do it, nothing is going to change. Every time I am close to that spot, when I feel like I just want to give up everything, I fall back on that energy and that strength that I get from them. Coming together as one force and believing that something will have to give at some point.
I forgot to mention that on December 15 I started an initiative called Biryani Wallahs. This emerged out of both people’s need for food, but also an avenue where they can earn an income. Biryani Wallahs collaborates with migrant women, refugee women, and single mothers. They make delicious food and then I help market and sell it. They receive 60% of the profits and 40% is absorbed back into the business. We initially were doing very well, but the second Movement Control Order (MCO) has really taken a toll on our business. The women of Biryani Wallahs are equal partners. We brainstorm ideas and make decisions together. I buy the raw materials and drop it off at their homes. They cook, I advertise, and then I make sure that I book a transport company to deliver the food to our clients.
When you work with marginalized communities, it is not about profiting off them. You should not use their stories or their narratives as a way of gaining sympathy, because that does not help anyone. It does not help you and it does not help the community. These communities do not need your pity. They do not need you to dramatize what is happening.
Refugees are much much much more than the persecution that they have endured and experienced. They are human beings with individual strengths, talents, and expertise. It is crucial to always make sure we do not start profiting off of them.
At the end of the day we should be dedicated to really creating opportunities for marginalized communities. At Beyond Borders we emphasize taking a step back, talking to them, asking them what they want, and not making decisions for them. It is also important to make sure that we create opportunities for them to speak up and be the face and we can always support them from behind.
It has been an absolute privilege to earn such deeply rooted trust and for communities to share their stories, homes, and meals with me. It is a huge honor and I am so happy that I have been and am in a position where I can interact with them so intimately, and from that gain strength, confidence and hope. I have learned so much from them. All of this would not have been possible without that.