US, M'sia face off over mass protests

Friday • November 30, 2007 (TODAY Online)
WASHINGTON — The protesters who took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur a few days ago might have invoked the British Queen’s name but it is Uncle Sam who has become the first outsider of note to react to the unprecedented mass rallies in Malaysia.

“We believe citizens of any country should be allowed to peacefully assemble and express their views,” a United States State Department official said when commenting on the crackdown of the two street protests in the Malaysian capital this month.
According to AFP, the US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not go beyond his succinct statement, but it was seen as an implicit criticism by the US State Department of the Malaysian police’s strong response to the rare outpouring of anti-government dissent.
The US comment drew a swift response from Malaysia’s de facto Law Minister Nazri Abdul Aziz.
Defending Kuala Lumpur’s actions, he said: “What is good for their country is not necessarily suitable for our country. We are a sovereign nation.”
Earlier this month, some 30,000 people took part in a rally calling for electoral reforms.
Last Sunday, a rally organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) attracted at least 8,000 Indians. They had asked the British government for compensation for the alleged exploitation of Indian labour when Malaysia was a British colony.
The two rallies were the biggest in a decade and were broken up by police using tear gas, water cannons and baton charges.
Three more public rallies are expected to be held in Kuala Lumpur next month.
On Dec 9, the Malaysian Bar Council will hold its annual Human Rights Day march, which the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih) has expressed intent on joining.
Bersih, which had organised the rally calling for electoral reforms, plans to stage a demonstration outside Parliament House two days after this to protest impending constitutional amendments that will raise the age limit of Election Commission members.
The third rally has been organised by a coalition of opposition parties and non-governmental organisations, to protest impending hikes in highway toll charges in several states beginning Jan 1.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned that he could use the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) to quell the rallies.
Mr Abdullah said the ISA, which allows for detention without trial, was a “preventive measure to spare the nation from untoward incidents that can harm the prevailing peace and harmony and create all sorts of adverse things”.
“ISA will be there. When it is appropriate to use it, it will be used,” he said.
In another development, a Hindraf leader, lawyer V Ganapathy Rao, was arrested yesterday just days after being cleared of sedition charges.
Hindraf lawyers said Mr Rao, who was freed on bail after being interrogated by police for several hours, was expected to be charged today with new sedition charges.
A court had earlier ruled that separate charges against Mr Rao and two other Hindraf leaders over speeches made earlier this month had not been properly documented.
The original charges, which carried a punishment of three years imprisonment, related to speeches earlier this month in which the Indian activists criticised preferential treatment for Malays. — AGENCIES