On 19 June, Pakatan Rakyat organised a get-together to celebrate the 64th birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi with a programme that included a few local and Burmese performances, speeches by political leaders/ activists, birthday cakes and lots of red heart shaped balloons. It was a small but nonetheless essential affair observed around the world as a show of solidarity with the Burmese pro-democracy movement and protest against the continued incarceration of the Nobel laureate and the ongoing sham trial. As some of you may know, the event never took off.

The organisers and some Burmese participants came to the venue, a canopy spot at Taman Jaya, Petaling Jaya at 7.00 pm and started the preparation for the event scheduled to start at 8.15 pm. Initially only a few plain clothes/special branch personnel came and monitored the situation and documented the scene with videos and still photographs – something not unexpected.

While the participants trickled in, more police personnel both uniformed and plain clothes arrived; some hung around while others continued watching and documenting. At that stage, the organisers still thought that this was the usual “monitor and intimidate” tactic and so they continued with the preparation. The organisers then received several telephone calls from participants who complained that the major roads leading to the park have been blocked and those traveling in cars were given a run around.

At about 8.00 pm, a large number of police personnel including several senior police officers came together with women personnel which are always a bad sign as that meant that the police are ready to arrest the participants including women. A few of the organisers went to “negotiate” with the senior police officers but all explanations were ignored. The senior police officers mostly just remained mute, spoke very little or just walked away. They would not even state who the officer in charge of the operation was. The police then conducted identity document checks and the Burmese showed what they had – some with government issued documents but others with UNHCR documents and Burmese community group cards. The police also tried to intimidate the local participants by demanding for their identity card and recording its details.

Sixteen Burmese participants were arrested at 9.00 pm on suspicion of immigration offences although the police also mentioned some sort of “security concern” and “illegal assembly”. More police/ riot squad personnel arrived with a police truck but no orders were given for the participants to disperse. Those arrested were then brought to the truck and taken away to the Petaling Jaya police station. Naturally, the event was called off.

As the police left the park, the local participants lingered around and cleared the venue. Suddenly, some of them felt some sort of light tear gas/pepper spray being released causing burning sensation to their throat, nose and eyes and they all hurried and left.

In total, the police employed in excess of a hundred police personnel (including those at the road blocks) against some 50 participants who managed to make their way to the park. Surely you would think that with so much focus on public insecurity, the high crime rate and the low level of public confidence and respect for the police, they would have better things to do? Apparently not.

All those arrested were detained at the Petaling Jaya police station and denied access to legal representation. Immigration officials were already present at the police station to verify the documents collected. Of the 16 arrested, 2 had valid work/residency documents. They were released at about 10.30 pm. As for the other 14 Burmese, 5 of them have not registered with UNHCR but hold membership cards from their Burmese community group. The nine others hold UNHCR refugee cards and registration letters i.e. those registered but awaiting their refugee status determination process. They were then moved to the Kelana Jaya Police Station at about 10.45pm. In the meanwhile, some 20 local participants ended up celebrating Suu Kyi’s birthday outside the Petaling Jaya police station with some protest songs and cakes.

As the situation stands, the case is still under police investigation and has not been handed over to the immigration. If or more likely when they are handed over to the immigration, their fate is likely to be bleak as they will be subject to the harsh immigration laws including detention, imprisonment and whipping (if charged for immigration offences) and deportation. During detention which can last up to two years, they face arbitrary violence, overcrowding, poor hygiene, diseases, insufficient food and water – leading to injuries, illnesses and even deaths.

They are then likely to be deported to the Thai/Malaysian border where they are sold to human traffickers/ criminal gangs who pay well for this constant supply of human commodity. In return, the criminal gangs hold the deportees hostage and extort them for up to RM2,000 per person whereupon they will be smuggled back to Malaysia – and the vicious cycle begins again. For those who are unable to pay, the men will mainly be sold as forced labour to Thai fishing trawlers, farms and plantations while the women to brothels and domestic servitude.

The manner of the arrests was unusual as the police came in force and seemed bent on arrest instead of the usual “monitor, intimidate and disperse” tactic. Burmese activist gatherings are not unusual and the police/ special branch usually monitor them without incident. In fact, a larger gathering of a few hundred Burmese that morning at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall proceeded peacefully. In the recent past, the Burmese communities have also demonstrated by the thousands at the Myanmar and Chinese Embassies.

Therefore the arrests came as a surprise especially since it was an innocuous and small scale event remembered around the world (including our very own Marina Mahathir and Harith Iskandar [?!!] – see front page of The Star on 20 June pictured in a montage with other celebrations around the world). Further, Malaysia had just been downgraded to the lowest ranking Tier 3 in the Trafficking in Persons Report 2009 (published by the US State Department) and once again ranked among the worst countries for refugees to live by the World Refugee Survey 2009 (published by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants).

One would think that more arrests is not the way forward or maybe they just wanted to do a favour for the Myanmar military junta. But then again respect for human rights and international law, rationality and compassion are not traits usually associated with the police and their political masters; instead these arrests are more of the usual “own goal” that we have come to expect from the police.

So there you have it – the day the Petaling Jaya police celebrated Aung San Suu Kyi’s birthday.

Eric Paulsen is primarily a researcher on refugees and statelessness. He is still contemplating whether to return to legal practice when all indicators of the state of the legal system argue that he should not.