The whole world is looking at Malaysia and the Southeast Asian region due to the recent Rohingya humanitarian crisis where more than a thousand Rohingya refugees landed on the shores of Langkawi, Kedah and several thousands more still adrift at sea.
Rumours began to surface that there is a small village on the island where the population consists of thousands of Rohingya. Of course this piqued Astro AWANI’s interest and so I travelled with cameraman, Fahmey Azhar, to Langkawi to see if these rumours were true.
A village of immigrants
“There is a village called Kampung Bukit Malut where everyone there are Burmese,” explained Suid Chin, a retired school headmaster and a local of Langkawi.
He went on to say that these people have been living there for many years now and they are now entering their second and even third generation. Many speak Bahasa Malaysia with a perfect Kedah accent.
This is echoed by several other locals I meet in the town of Kuah.
“There are many people from Myanmar in Kampung Bukit Malut. But they live very poor lives and mostly uneducated,” said shopkeeper Hathijathul Fahira Ashar.
“They are said to be from Myanmar, but they speak perfect Bahasa Malaysia. So I’m not sure,” exclaimed batik salesman Basri Abdul Shahid.
“I think there are Burmese, Thai and Indonesians living in Kampung Bukit Malut,” said Khoo Thean Boon, a local anchovy dealer.
The way that these locals talked about Kampung Bukit Malut and it’s villagers was an obvious sign that although they looked upon these people as immigrants but not outsiders. It was like they were so much a part of Langkawi.
But, we also heard some negative rumours about Kampung Bukit Malut. Several people told us that it is a dangerous area and very ghetto-like. No Langkawi local dared to set foot in the village because, apparently, there were many gangsters and criminals.
Walking into the ghetto
We drove into the Bukit Malut area early in the morning. As we were driving along Jalan Bukit Malut, we started noticed the shape of squatter-like houses in between the tall trees that lined the shoulder of the road.
Soon, we reached a small left turning in the road and we followed it until we arrived at a small mosque and awarongopposite it. We parked the car and headed for thewarongfor some tea. There were several people there who eyed us suspiciously.
The stall owner took our order and I took the opportunity to strike up a conversation with him. He told me that he was a local Kedahan Malay and that he has been living in this village for about thirty years.
I asked him if there was a village head that I could talk to to find out more about the history of this village. He pointed me in a direction of a small house nearby a coconut tree and I nodded thankfully.
We are not Rohingya
Abdullah Mohamed, or Pak Lah as he is known, looked a bit apprehensive when we first approached him. But he warmed up a little bit when we told him about the rumours and that if it wasn’t true, then we want to tell that to the public.
“We expected this attention when the Rohingya crisis got in the news. But the fact is that there are no Rohingya in this village,” he stated.
Pak Lah continued to explain that they are all Malays here. What he feels has fueled the rumours is that some of the people who first settled here were Malays who had lived in Myanmar many years ago but returned.
“Many people also think we’re gangsters here. But you can see for yourself, we’re civilised. Why don’t these accusers come and pay us a visit and see how normal we are,” he said.
“We are all peaceful Malaysians here. We even have our blue identification cards!” laughed Ahmad, a friend of Pak Lah and also a village committee member.
Was he a Rohingya?
We bid farewell to Pak Lah and, with his blessings, we walked further into the Kampung Bukit Malut to explore and see how the villagers were living their lives here and to try and interview a few of them as well.
The deeper we got into the village, the worse condition the houses and roads became. Eventually, we were walking in mud and the houses turned into decrepit plywood shacks. But there people every where – adults and children.
We met a man named Yusop Saad who was sitting with his son on the steps of his shack. I asked if he was willing to answer a few questions and he nodded.
“I’m Perak and I moved here about eight years ago. To support my six children, sometimes I go to sea to catch fish. Other times I work on land as a labourer,” he told me.
Yusop spoke to me in Bahasa Malaysia. He pronounced his words the way most northern Malaysians do. But somehow, he had a weird accent that I could not put my hand on. It didn’t sound local.
We continued walking and I noticed a young man probably in his late twenties sitting on a motorcycle and chewing betelnut. That seemed out of place to me because not many young men in Malaysia chewed betelnut.
I smiled and approached him. He smiled back. I asked him his name and where he came from. He said his name is Hisham and he was from Myanmar. I was caught off guard because I wasn’t expecting such a direct answer.
I asked if we could interview him in front of the camera. He nodded. But all of a sudden, there was a loud shout and we turned around to see an elderly man on a motorcycle motioning aggressively for Hisham to go to him.
Hisham walked up to the man on the motorcycle. There was a short exchange of words between them but I couldn’t hear anything. He came back to me after a few minutes and shook his head saying that he doesn’t want to be interviewed.
After a short attempt of trying to persuade him, I gave up and Fahmey and I went on our way. But it smelled fishy.
As we were about to walk out of the village, I saw a house with a family who had yellow powder all over their faces, again, a habit that is not common for Malaysians. And so I politely approached them to see if they were willing to be interviewed.
They spoke no Bahasa Malaysia, accept for a few smattering of words here and there. Instead, they called out their neighbour, a young man who lived in the rickety shack next to theirs. His name was Ismail Talib and he spoke Bahasa Malaysia.
“I’m Burmese and have been in Malaysia for many years. But I’m not from Rakhine and I’m not a Rohingya. My father brought us here to become citizens. I am a Malaysian now,” he smiled.
Working as a wireman, he recently just got married and he and his wife are expecting their first child. I wished them well and we went on our way.
M.I.K. (Melayu Islam Kedah)
“Kampung Bukit Malut is definitely not a Rohingya village. They are Malays who were living in Myanmar many years ago and then they came back,” said Kuah state assemblyman, Nor Saidi Nanyan.
He goes on to explain that a few decades ago, when Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was the Prime Minister, these group of people were brought back to Malaysia and given citizenship because they were rightfully Malays.
“The term that is used is ‘Melayu Islam Kedah’, or Kedah Muslim Malays,” explained Nor Saidi. “These people are Malays and have Malay features instead of Rohingya.”
The few locals that I had spoken to in Langkawi also talked about these people being Malays from Myanmar and that they are actually interacting and living quite well with the locals here with no problems at all.
“They are very hardworking. Although most a fishermen, many have also started running businesses like car rental services and restaurants,” said retired teacher, Suid Chin.
“They are just like everyone else. There good ones are good and the bad ones are bad,” smiled batik salesman Basri Abdul Shahid.
I left Langkawi with mixed feelings. Sure, for the most parts, the villagers there were very much Malay and Malaysian. But there were also questions that I could not answer – Who was Hisham? What is the exact history of the M.I.K. or Melayu Islam Kedah?
Oh well, it looks like those questions will have to wait for another day.
Tune in to 501 AWANI at 9:30pm, Thursday 28th May 2015, for the special TV documentary about Kampung Bukit Malut, Langkawi, on Analisis Khas.