By Rama Ramanathan

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--Many graves were found in Wang Kelian. In the jungles, on the hills. The graves held bodies of trafficked persons, faces pointed towards Mecca. One burial is known to have been conducted by an Ustaz (religious teacher) who was also a trafficking agent.

Ustaz Ali Mamu buried Farouk “properly” after he  was beaten to death by his captors in a transit camp used by human traffickers. Beaten to death after he made a phone call to his father. Beaten to death because his father scolded his captors.

We know which way the dead faced in their graves because it’s in the 2019 Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry [RCI] on the Discovery of Transit Camps and Graves at Wang Kelian, Perlis (Malay, English).

We know about Ali Mamu and Farouk because of S38, a survivor of one of the camps. S38 gave sworn evidence to an officer of a sessions court in Perlis in September 2016. The RCI report includes some of his evidence.

I began reading the Wang Kelian RCI Report in my efforts to understand Malaysia’s forensic anthropology capabilities.

I wanted to learn what our forensic anthropologists learned from the remains recovered from Wang Kelian. I wanted to learn what their report on the  18 bone fragments of Anna Jenkins might say. I wanted to learn from “facts on the ground,” not from television entertainment.

I learned more than I expected.

The police laboured for days. In oppressive conditions. They dug up 148 suspected graves. They found 132 bodies. They also collected evidence which could help identify victims and determine causes of death.

Forensic pathologists were not present during recovery of the remains. They received the remains in a Disaster Victim Identification Centre which they established in Alor Setar General Hospital. They used radiology, pathology, anthropology, and odontology to identify the victims.

The autopsies took about 18 days. The remains were then buried – in a long disused Muslim cemetery in Kedah. It took about six months to finish the “identifications,” since many bones had to be defleshed – and many tests had to be performed.

I put “identifications” in quotes because their names remain unknown. The studies focused on age, ethnicity, and gender.

Opinions were formed about the cause of death of only two persons. One was pneumonia, the other was blockage of a heart artery. “No clear indication of injuries were found on the corpses as most of them comprised only bones and tissue that had undergone decomposition.”

The remains probably comprise two females and 130 males, all of Indian origin, from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Aged from ten years to over forty years.

The graves were two to four feet deep. The bodies had been wrapped in “kafan,” the white cloth used in Muslim funerals to symbolize holiness and to cover the nakedness of the dead.

On 21 January 2015, the police became aware of mounds which could be graves. Six weeks later, they dug some up and confirmed these were graves. They took photos and closed the graves. Another ten weeks later, they began recovery.

The RCI summed up the 16 week delay as police “lack of urgency.”

They asked the then IGP, Khalid Abu Bakar, to explain. They expressed shock over the improbable and unsubstantiated excuses he gave. (Read the NST report here.) I’m not shocked. Khalid did the same in the Kugan case and in the cases of Amri Che Mat and Raymond Koh.

What does all this have to do with Anna Jenkins? It goes to show that lack of urgency is endemic in the police force. It goes to show that the likelihood of the coroner establishing a cause of death is slim to nil. It goes to show it’s the people at the top who should be held accountable.

One witness at the RCI was DSP Sivagnanam, ground commander of the General Operations Force in the area. He told the RCI he sent a report of the findings to his superiors’ days after his team discovered the camps. He summarized the response he got from them:

“I was forbidden from returning to that area and when the unit was redeployed, I was ordered to sit out.”

The news report from which I plucked that quote includes this:

Asked if he questioned his superior about being pulled from duty, he responded, “We just follow orders.”

Yet, he also sent a copy of his report to Suhakam, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia. Later, Suhakam worked with the NGO FortifyRights to investigate. The result was the report Sold Like a Fish.

According to the same news report, similar camps and graves were found on the Thai side of the border, at the same time, virtually in the same place. The Thais tried 102 persons and convicted 62 of them, including a 3-star general. Malaysia arrested many, including 12 police officers – all the officers were freed due to “lack of evidence.”

Wang Kelian is an indictment. Burying victims with their faces facing Mecca isn’t enough. Following orders isn’t enough. Setting up RCIs isn’t enough. There have to be arrests, convictions, transparency, reforms.

If not, we will lose our honour. And our tourists. And our investors.