Malaysia's crackdown on dissent widens

By Anil Netto, 12 December 2007
PENANG – The administration of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, rattled in recent months by a series of street protests, launched on Sunday another tough crackdown against peaceful demonstrators in which at least 23 human-rights lawyers, activists and opposition politicians were arrested.

The Malaysian Bar Council planned its annual walk for human rights in downtown Kuala Lumpur, which some predicted could have seen a turnout similar to an earlier march held in the
administrative capital of Putrajaya in September where some 2,000 people participated.
But the council backed down in the face of warnings from the authorities that stern action would be taken against those involved in public demonstrations. Its “Festival of Rights” celebrations were then moved to its premises in Kuala Lumpur. A group of prominent human-rights lawyers and several dozen activists and supporters, however, decided to press ahead with the march. Observers said police outnumbered the marchers by a ratio of around five-to-one.
Eight demonstrators were arrested after they tried to negotiate an extension of the short time that police had granted them to complete their march on the planned route. They were charged in court Monday with participating in an “illegal assembly” and failing to disperse when ordered. They were later released on bail, but the offenses carry possible fines and jail terms of 30 months.
“If the choice is between public safety and public freedom, I do not hesitate to say here that public safety will always win,” said Prime Minister Abdullah, according to media reports. “Malaysians must never, ever, take their peace for granted and they must continue to be responsible to each other.”
Rights groups, for their part, slammed the arrests. “We are appalled that even a small gathering of marchers to a nearby destination in an orderly manner without obstructing the traffic or causing any chaos to the public cannot be allowed or tolerated by this oppressive regime,” said P Ramakrishnan, president of the social reform group Aliran.
“If this little act of a democratic principle cannot be exercised in a responsible manner, can we pretend to be a democratic country any longer?”
Police also detained Edmund Bon, head of the Bar Council human-rights committee, for allegedly trying to obstruct security personnel from removing publicity banners placed on the Bar Council’s buildings. A Malaysian Bar official said that the banners were clearly within the Bar’s premises. Bon was released on bail Monday.
On Sunday evening, two prominent opposition politicians, Tian Chua and Mohamad Sabu, along with 12 activists, were also arrested for their involvement in another gathering the authorities considered an “illegal assembly”. Most of them were crowd control marshals from the opposition Parti Islam Malaysia (PAS) who had participated in a November 10 rally in the capital which called for electoral reforms.
The rally was organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH), an initiative spearheaded by civil society groups and backed by a number of opposition parties. PAS marshals were widely credited for ensuring a peaceful and orderly rally attended by some 50,000 people, mostly ethnic Malays, though other ethnic groups also participated. Police, however, used tear gas and water cannons on sections of the crowd in a bid to disperse them.
The BERSIH rally was followed by another large protest on November 25, when an estimated 30,000 ethnic Indians from across the country converged in Kuala Lumpur to highlight what they perceived to be systematic ethnic marginalization and religious discrimination by the government.
The rally was spearheaded by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) and led by a small group of vocal ethnic Indian Malaysian lawyers. Last week a group of 31 HINDRAF protesters were slapped with the charge of “attempted murder” of a policeman during the November 25 rally, while 16 of them were also charged with taking part in an illegal assembly.
In the eastern state of Trenggganu, two PAS members have been charged with causing injury to a police officer during another rally in September which similarly called for electoral reforms. Both opposition party members have been denied bail.
Still, the string of arrests have not deterred another small group of five lawyers and opposition politicians from marching in Kuching, East Malaysia on Monday morning in a symbolic gesture to mark Human Rights Day, reported the independent news portal Malaysiakini.
Some analysts believe that the widening gap between rich and the poor in Malaysia is fueling the growing number of protests. They point out that neo-liberal economic and privatization policies, cuts in subsidies for essential services, and rising fuel and food prices have burdened the poor.
Indeed, most of those attending the recent large BERSIH and HINDRAF protests appeared to be from lower income groups. “The underlying causes [of the protests] are economic,” said prominent economist Subramaniam Pillay. “There is a widening income disparity between unskilled and semi-skilled workers on the one hand, and skilled workers and connected people on the other.”
He added that the incomes of unskilled and semi-skilled workers had been depressed by cheap foreign labor. Subramaniam is also chairperson of the steering committee of the civil society Coalition Against Health Care Privatization. The Coalition today received the 2007 Malaysian human rights award from the Kuala Lumpur-based rights group Suaram for its campaign.
The mass arrests and trials of demonstrators in court are worryingly reminiscent of the mass trials during the so-called Reformasi streets protests of 1998-2001, when dozens were hauled to court to face charges of illegal assembly. Some believe that the protracted trials of that period, including of former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim, served two purposes: they sapped the energy of the Reformasi demonstrators by dragging them through the court system, while the trials also deterred others from taking part in more protests.
Unlike his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister Abdullah has not yet used the draconian Internal Security Act against those mobilizing the demonstrators – though he has not discounted the possibility. Abdullah, whose reform agenda to stamp out corruption and abuse of power has floundered, now faces a ground swell of popular disenchantment which has spilled onto the streets.
The year-end season of discontent could force him to delay plans for calling an early snap general election, which is due at the latest by early 2009. Instead, prominent opposition politicians believe the embattled premier is on the brink of ordering a major crackdown against dissent.