Which Way Will Malaysia Go?

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Here at Blogwatch we’re always interested when the blogosphere itself makes the front page. Ten days ago, Malaysian politics attracted international attention when a prominent blogger was arrested without charge under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA) following allegations he had insulted Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The arrest puts him in a legal black hole, and is shaping up as a serious test of the direction Malaysia will take in its attitude to human rights, corruption and the way it controls its media.

Under Article 149 of the Malaysian Constitution, the ISA permits the detention without charge or trial of any person the Home Minister chooses, for as long as he sees fit. There are believed to be 64 detainees currently held under the ISA (full list here).

The arrested blogger, Raja Petra Kamarudin (known as "RPK"), is an English-born nephew of the eleventh King of Malaysia (who died in 2001). His blog and news portal MalaysiaToday has become compulsory reading for many of the growing number of critics of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Badawi’s hold on power is increasingly fragile as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim gains support. At the same time, Badawi has come under fire from his former mentor and predecessor, Dr Mahathir Bin Mohamad, who has been behind strong criticism of him from within the PM’s own power base. Many members of the governing United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) quit the party over Badawi’s leadership and still more have called for his resignation. This includes Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister from the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of legal affairs and judicial reform, who resigned on 15 September following a number of arrests under the ISA.

RPK is a supporter of Anwar Ibrahim and has enraged the Government before by levelling extraordinary allegations at its members. In the most renowned of these cases, RPK claimed Government insiders were involved in or had knowledge of the bizarre killing of Mongolian woman Altantuya Shaariibuu. "My informer states that Acting Colonel Aziz Buyong was the person who placed the C4 on various parts of Altantuya Shaariibuu’s body while being witnessed by Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor (the Deputy Prime Minister’s wife)," RPK alleged in a statutory declaration which he later posted online.

RPK has also crusaded against politically convenient sodomy charges that have been brought against Anwar. In August he wrote:

A special police operations centre was set up some time ago to coordinate all activities related to the Anwar Ibrahim sodomy crisis. No, the special police operations centre was not set up AFTER the alleged sodomy act took place on 26 June 2008. It was set up way before 26 June 2008.

Why the need to set up a special police operations centre BEFORE the date of the alleged sodomy act? Are they clairvoyant? […]

But this is not yet the icing on the cake. The icing on the cake is that this special police operations centre is not located in the police headquarters. It is located in the meeting room of the office of prominent UMNO lawyer Shafee Abdullah who possesses a notorious reputation for fixing cases such as those involving the people implicated in murdering Altantuya Shaariibuu.

In this special police operations centre in UMNO lawyer Shafee Abdullah’s law firm is a whiteboard and on this whiteboard are two names: Anwar Ibrahim and Raja Petra Kamarudin. Below these two names are all sorts of notes, scribblings and etchings. There are also charts and strategies on how both Anwar Ibrahim and Raja Petra Kamarudin can be implicated in various crimes and incarcerated until their teeth fall out of their gums."

RPK has been arrested twice before — once after similar allegations of insulting Islam — summoned to court regularly and has been a constant victim of politically motivated hackers who have taken down his site. In a recent attack on 2 July, his home page was replaced by a photoshopped image which placed Mahathir in the film poster for We Were Soldiers, starring Mel Gibson, with the altered tagline "My Countrymen, My Fellow Malaysians".

But hackers’ use of Mahathir as a symbol of Malaysian unity behind Badawi’s government doesn’t quite work, since lately Mahathir has actually been defending RPK, (even though, while Mahathir was still Prime Minister, RPK was once arrested on allegations of organising a coup against him).

RPK’s recent arrest under the ISA was on 12 September, and no actual charges have been laid. Two days later another blogger Syed Azidi Syed Abdul Aziz of kickdefella followed him into the same kind of indefinite "preventative detention". Also detained under the ISA were journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, Sin Chew Jit Poh and high profile MP, Teresa Kok Suh Sim. Following seven days in solitary confinement, Teresa Kok was released.

The comments for which RPK has been arrested are by no means flattering: "Listen to how Muslims talk. They foam at the mouth in defence of Islam. They slander and defile other religions, declare all other religions as false and their holy books as fakes," he proclaims.

Many Malay blogs are now calling for a "Hartal ISA", or a general strike and on 16 September, lawyers for RPK filed habeas corpus.

Economist and president of Transparency International Malaysia, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam has said:

If Abdullah lets the democratic process take place and does not stifle the country with arrests and emergency rule, it will be his finest hour, and he will go down in history as the man who liberalised the democratic system in Malaysia. But if he reneges on his word to not invoke the ISA, then he would only be digging his own grave.

Blogger Din Merican has posted an email from former US Ambassador to Malaysia, John Malott saying,

Although the attention of the world has turned to the financial crisis in the United States, interest in Malaysia has never been higher. The world is watching. Malaysia can redeem itself in the eyes of the world — or it can become an international pariah — all within the space of the next few weeks.


**UPDATE 24/09/08: Raja Petra has been detained for two years, without trial, for writing articles considered to have maligned Islam. This morning he was sent from Bukit Aman police headquarters, where he had been held since 12 September, to the Kamunting detention centre.

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