Malaysia Cracks Down On Civil Society


While the Australian Government is busy presenting Malaysia as an acceptable solution to its asylum seeker problem, the Malaysian Government has been equally busy showing the world how it treats its own citizens.

Bersih ("Clean" in Malay), a coalition of NGOs working for free and fair elections in Malaysia, has planned a mass rally for electoral reform on 9 July. In the lead up, Malaysians are being pre-emptively arrested in growing numbers on charges ranging from wearing yellow t-shirts (Bersih's signature colour) to spreading chaos, attempting to "resurrect communism", and waging war against the Malaysian King.

The 200-odd arrested so far include advocates for electoral and political reform, Opposition supporters and elected representatives.

Bersih stresses that its march is peaceful and that the people's right to rally is constitutionally guaranteed in a democracy, such as Malaysia claims to be.

Its first rally in 2007 turned the streets of Kuala Lumpur into a sea of yellow, prompting the Government to crack down on peaceful demonstrators using mass arrests, water cannons and riot squads with enough force to focus worldwide attention.

Faced with international criticism, the Government's response was to blame demonstrators for "forcing" the police to lock down the city — damaging local business, inconveniencing the public and harming Malaysia's international reputation.

Four years later Bersih are still calling for clean electoral rolls, free and fair media access, eradication of vote-buying, 21 days notice for elections, and use of indelible ink to prevent phantom voters.

These measures would go some way towards reversing Malaysia's recent slide in both Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index and Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index. Taken for granted as a citizen's right in Australia, free and fair elections have yet to be gained in Malaysia.

The Government has refused the rally a permit and declared Bersih illegal. Therefore anyone wearing t-shirts or carrying any paraphernalia with its logo can be arrested.

In Malaysia, it is illegal to gather in public in a group of more than five without a police permit. It is illegal to speak freely on "sensitive" issues, such as race and religion, or to publish material deemed by the Government to be "malicious", or that may "influence people to revolt against the leaders and government policies".

Civil servants and government-sponsored students who attend Bersih's rally face disciplinary action. The Akujanji, a mandatory pledge for all government workers and students, binds them to eschew any such "political" or "illegal" activities.

In practice, the "illegal" in Malaysia differs according to whether one supports or challenges the Government.

Counter-rallies planned for the same day by ultra-nationalist NGO Perkasa and UMNO Youth, the youth wing of the ruling coalition's United Malays National Organisation, have not been granted permits either. Yet none of their members have been harassed. Nor have Perkasa's red t-shirts been cause for arrest.

Perkasa was formed in 2008 to "protect Malay rights" and its outspoken leader Ibrahim Ali, a "government-friendly" Independent who won office on the Opposition ticket, has repeatedly broached "sensitive" issues to do with defending the Malay race. "Imagine, ladies and gentlemen," he "advised" at the launch of Perkasa's counter-rally, "if the Bersih rally is not called off… I believe the Chinese community… will have to stock up on food at home. Anything can happen on that day."

Ibrahim's comments raise the spectre, yet again, of Malaysia's 1969 race riots — the most violent episode in that country's race relations.

To date Ibrahim remains free to continue Perkasa's preparations for 9 July, and his comments continue to be supported by Malaysia's most incendiary mouthpiece, the UMNO-owned daily Utusan Malaysia.

Neither has there been any serious investigation into a recent "illegal" assembly of 300 UMNO Youth outside the headquarters of Anwar Ibrahim's opposition People's Justice Party.

Youths on motorcycles carrying UMNO flags surrounded the building, demanding the cancellation of Bersih's rally and allegedly threatening to burn the building down. The police, stationed in the same building, did not intervene.

So far Bersih's office has been raided, its materials confiscated and its workers arrested. Its leaders have been hauled up for interrogation. Bersih supporters, including its main spokesperson Ambiga Sreenevasan, recipient of the USA's 2009 International Women of Courage Award, have received death threats couched in crude racist terms.

Those arrested have been denied access to lawyers and family visits, which are the legal rights of detainees in Malaysia. Detainees also reported assaults, mistreatment and severe overcrowding. A detainee with medical problems was denied medication. Asking for water, another was told to drink from the toilet bowl.

The Electoral Commission has dismissed Bersih as an Opposition stooge, whose rally is calculated to sweep Anwar Ibrahim to power in the forthcoming but as yet unannounced general elections — which may be called with as little as eight days notice.

The Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has blasted Ambiga Sreenevasan for wanting to "ruin" the nation. He proclaimed UMNO's capability of mobilising three million to "flood Kuala Lumpur", but stressed it would not do so because "street demonstrations … could lead to disaster in the wink of an eye, more so when certain quarters fanned the emotions of the people".

A month earlier, on National Youth Day, the PM was arguably doing his own fanning, calling upon a crowd of 8000 youths to defend Putrajaya, the seat of government, from the Opposition.

"If in Egypt one million youths gathered in Tahrir Square to change that country's leadership … in Malaysia, one million youths gathered to defend Putrajaya… Are you willing to defend Putrajaya?" he repeatedly asked.

Faced with a situation of "chaos" and "national threat", the Malaysian Government has "not ruled out" the use of the Internal Security Act — a draconian law that allows for indefinite detention without trial. It has already used the Emergency Ordinance — which also allows for indefinite detention without trial — against six members of the legally registered Socialist Party of Malaysia, including its elected MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar.

The Government has also warned its citizens overseas to avoid Bersih's planned simultaneous rallies at Malaysian embassies worldwide — notably in Australia, where EMAS (formerly the Malaysian Students Department of Australia) has stated it would "work with the Australian authorities to take appropriate action".

In a period of escalating paranoia and hysterical response by the Malaysian State, is it too far-fetched to wonder if "working with the Australian authorities" might form part of ongoing negotiations between Australia and Malaysia? If Malaysia can do Australia's dirty work dealing with its "illegal" asylum seekers, is it inconceivable for Malaysia to expect Australia to do its dirty work regarding those it considers "illegal", in return?

Malaysia's own citizens who do not comply with their Government's worldview and system face ongoing physical, political and legal harassment. How would an undocumented refugee who is forcefully sent back to Malaysia by the Australian Government fare? If the way Malaysia treats its own citizens is anything to go by, let alone its lamentable record with "illegals", the Malaysian Government's guarantee of fair or even "acceptable" treatment is no guarantee.


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