She was taken at 5 AM: story of a child bride within Rohingya refugee community in Malaysia


This was how my day went on February 14, 2017: I woke up at 3 AM Jakarta time, or 4 AM Kuala Lumpur time. I did some work as I wait for Fajr prayer. I had my breakfast: toast, milk, fruit salad, coffee, and coffee with milk. Then I started my field research where I met a Rohingya child bride.

She lives with her family in a small wooden hut in Gombak district, just a short distance from Kuala Lumpur. Her family consists of her parents and five children. She was the oldest. The youngest was, if I remember correctly, 8 months. The family left Myanmar for the same reasons as why many other Rohingyas did–a better future. But, as many other Rohingyas, in their journey to find asylum they were instead met with tragedies.

“She was taken at 5 AM”, the interpreter, a young Rohingya  women, told me. (Name omitted for the moment, not sure if could/should put her name here. Nevertheless, she is a remarkable young lady who is an example of empowerment and dedication, but this is a story for another time)

She continued, “and then she was taken to another state.”

Fatimah, not her real name, was kidnapped by a neighbour who is also Rohingya refugee in Malaysia. She was threatened to follow him lest “bad things” will happen to her or her family. He then brought her in front of an ustadz–a religious figure in Islam–to marry her under religious ceremony.

In Malaysia, as Rohingya people do not have legal documentation with the occasional exception of a UNHCR card, they cannot marry legally and therefore resort to religious ceremony.

I asked her if the ustadz know that she was forced to marry the man. She told me that he did not know, and that she was too scared to told him.

And so she married the man.

She was 12 when all of these happened.

Meanwhile, the father tried to find her. He asked police for help with no  results. He then turned to his own community to help him find his daughter.

“They did not help”, his jaw tightened as he told me. “They helped with other things, but they did not help with this.”

It was not quite clear what he meant by other things, but it seems he meant basic necessities such as food or electricity bills.

A family friend finally told him that he heard his daughter was in another state. The trip was expensive but he still went. However, he did not rescue Fatimah at once. He tried to let bygones be bygones as they are already husband and wife.

You might ask why.

What happened to Fatimah is not completely isolated. Well, the kidnapping part–hopefully–is, but the whole child marriage thing is not.

Indeed, Fatimah is not the only case of Rohingya child bride in Malaysia. Child marriage within Rohingya community in Malaysia has been widely reported by UNHCR as well as media. A 2015 report by UNHCR notes that at that time there are 120 Rohingya child brides in Malaysia. Furthermore, some of them are reported to be ‘mail-order brides’. Some of my interviews mentioned that the ones who order these brides are often Rohingya male themselves.

“The men believe Rohingya women are more submissive”, they told me.

This situation prompted the father to accept the situation as is. He told me that the husband also promised to protect Fatimah and that he truly loves her. The father decided to went home but was still in contact with her.

She was still 12 when all of these happened.

However, as you might imagine, the husband was a failure both as husband and as human. In fact, he is a general failure as living organism. He is a waste of oxygen and water. No human, animals, or plants should be cursed by his presence.

This shame of all species denied Fatimah from basic necessities. At times, she would starve with only small amount of rice to eat for the whole month. At times, this rotten meat would also beat her and denied her contact from her parents. The father, worried for what might happened to her, tried to find out what was actually happening.

She was 13 when her father took her back.

She was 13 years old when I met her.

Later that week, a friend who went with me in this fieldwork recounted the day in a small meeting .

“This man”, she looked at me, “met with a child bride and his face was just on the floor.”

Yes. I was on tears.

When I started my research on refugee issues in Southeast Asia a year and a half ago, I am already aware of the child marriage phenomena among Rohingya community. But this particular case caught me off guard.

I understand that we should not romanticize refugees. They are human and like other human beings they are also subject to our basest desires and in their vulnerability can also commit criminal or immoral actions. While this should not strip them of their human rights, it is important for those who advocate for this very rights to not put them on a pedestal. Refugee issue is complex and layered. And, as many social issues, the key is to combine two sides of a coin: assume goodwill but manage your expectation.

I can also understand the cultural logic behind child marriage. I think it is wrong and should be changed. But I get it. Where they are from it was cultural norm. Yes, they should not bring it to their new homes; but, hey, I get it.

However, just because I can follow the logic behind it, does not mean that I understand the actual phenomenon.

Why would anyone kidnap a child and forced her to marry them?

Why did the ustadz not ask about the whole arrangement?

Why did the police not help the father find his daughter?

Why did the community kept mum about it?

How on earth could this happen?!

I have the answers to most of the above. But I still do not understand. And here I am thinking I have a pretty big brain.

My mind was preoccupied with these questions for most of the interview. My friend picked it up. He asked Fatimah how is she feeling now, how did she manage to cope.

“I tried to feel nothing, i tried to forget”, she said through a forced smile.

She was 12 when she was kidnapped, beaten, starved, and raped.


Some thoughts on Jakarta 2017 election

It is very interesting to see how things will develop in Jakarta gubernatorial election. It is clear from the candidates setup that Jakarta officially starts the roll call for future presidential election. Or, at least, future cabinet line up. With this high profile background, the election highlights a number of political trends.

2016 ends with current governor Ahok who seemed to be near undefeatable several months ago facing his biggest challenge just yet: a blasphemy allegation where he is named as a suspect. Additionally, he also found two strong contenders: Anies Baswedan, a former minister of education uner Jokowi and prominent scholar/activist with Indonesia Mengajar project under his portfolio; and Agus Yudhoyono, the scion of the longest running post-Reformasi president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and a former mayor at the army.

Nevertheless, even with these challenges I still put my money on Ahok. While he is still behind in surveys, the trend shows promising sign of increase. Plus, he is also the only canidate who not only have clear policy plan but also have implemented strings of policies with tangible impacts on the life of Jakartans. (ie on one hand he cleans river and tidy up the city, on the other hand he forcefully evict people and got tangled in Jakarta Bay land reclamation case) If he managed to navigate the negative sentiments aimed at him due to the blasphemy case, and if he managed to watch where his words go, I think he is still the strongest contender.

On another note, the gubernatorial election also highlights a worrying trend. That is, in Indonesia some local elections are more equal than others. The widespread attention given to Jakarta made this election look like a competition for a presidential seat. It is therefore not surprising that political candidates eye this position which can propel them to national attention. They believe that becoming Jakarta’s governor will bring significant electoral impact for their future political career.

This is important consideration for the politically ambitious. Indeed, their time in Jakarta will form a cornerstone of their future presidential campaign.

As a governor they can show the country how good an executive they are. Plus, to be the number one person in the media capital of Indonesia is sure to warrant them extra attention. What they do will be the talk of the town. What they achieve will be the highlight of the nation.

This trend defeats the purpose of decentralization. Indonesia has seen many effective leaders emerging at the local level. Should we not promote this trend instead of fetishizing over politics in the capital city? (check the golden standard of successful local leader: Tri Rismaharini, Mayor of Surabaya)

Another trend that is also interesting is the emergence of future leaders with clear political ambition. This is a good trend.

While it is quite easy to belittle the politically ambitious as greedy for power and uncprincipled, it should be noted that there is nothing inherently wrong or evil in political ambition, or in jumping from one office to another, or in cooperating with your ideological opposites.

Power seeking behavior is not necessarily evil.

However, the motive behind this behavior is more difficult to ascertain. The great sociologist Max Weber has long ago reminded us that those who seek this kind of power might have in mind a purpose—ideal or egoistic—in which politics will serve as means to its end, or simply to have power for power’s sake; to ‘enjoy the naked possession of the power they exert’.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that each of the candidates hold high ambition with a noble purpose. It is not too difficult to argue that even in post-Reformasi decentralized Indonesia presidential office and its roster of ministers still play prominent part in charting the direction of the nation. Therefore to try to grasp this position in order to realize their grand vision of Indonesia is equal to the attainment of greater public goods.

Does this justify a scramble for power?

This is a tricky question to answer. The logical answer would be to say that it is possible as long as the candidates do not sacrifice anything essential in the process, followed by a list of dos and dont’s.  But it is challenging to define the essentials, especially when we try to understand a purely pragmatic outlook. (eg. does the end justify the means?)

Take a look at Governor Ahok’s  policy of eviction. The policy is an understandable one. It is easier to evict poor people who might live ilegally to landscape their lands into parks or water catchment area compared to destroying malls or apartments for the same reasons. The goal is also quite urgent as Jakarta is always troubled by pollution, flood, need for open space, nagging middle class, etc. Plus, the government also provides housing for the evicted.

However, it is difficult to justify this policy from the lens of human rights and social justice. How can we justify forced eviction of people, some of which have build their entire livelihood in their (former) home? Especially when it is also not clear how appropriate and suitable the government housings are for the needs of the evicted.

Governor Ahok only has limited time and resources to pick the best policy and potentially leaves his mark on national arena, what should he do?

What will we do?

Furthermore, politically pragmatic people can thrive in Indonesia. Indeed, the overall political environment in Indonesia still seems to favor a more pragmatic outlook. It can be quite a dangerous water to navigate, after all.

We have ruling party who sometimes acted like opposition towards its own president. We have presidents who consolidate their power by trading ministerial seats and other strategic posts. We even had president who ended his rule at the receiving end of tank guns.

It is difficult to be a president in this country. It takes people with special quality to seek power and still hold their ideals.

If the candidates love Indonesia as much as Machiavelli loved Florence, or Brutus with Rome, we can rest assure that they will have ideals. They will be doing the best that they can within whatever corridor of ethics that they hold dear to dedicate their life for their country.

That might not be the most flattering analogy. Then again, politics is not the most flattering vocation. Those who enter politics will have to be ready to walk their feet through the mud to erect the pillar that will support their ideals. People cannot expect politicians to act like heroes, noble and aloof from worldy affairs.

They are a special kind of people. And they might just be what we need.

Again, to quote Weber, “Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say ‘In spite of all!’ has the calling for politics.”

For those people all I can say is goodluck and godspeed.

Meanwhile, I will be around, watching, blogging, judging, eating popcorn.