Crackdown draws opposition together

TODAYonline: 13 Dec 2007

M’sia group wants audience with PM to talk about racial, religious tension in country

A SPATE of arrests in recent days has spurred a coalition of Malaysian opposition arties and non-government organisations (NGOs) to demand an audience with Prime inister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
And if such crisis talks were to take place, the grouping — comprising four opposition arties and 19 NGOs — wants to raise three main issues.
“The main issues we want to raise are the racial and religious tensions affecting his country, protesting the high-handedness of breaking up protests and public assemblies, and the need for free and fair elections,” said former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, speaking to reporters on behalf of the grouping in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.
When contacted later by TODAY, and asked if they had specific demands such as the immediate release of those detained, Mr Anwar, now the de facto leader of opposition party Keadilan, said such demands were included in the group’s statement, which “requests for the crackdown to be stopped”.
But he also “refused to speculate” on the possibility that Mr Abdullah would ignore or turn down the group’s request.
Mr Anwar told TODAY: “We are optimistic that the PM, who has pledged he would listen to the people, would meet with the civil society and work with us to address said issues.”
At the press conference yesterday, the group released a joint statement deploring “the heavy handed actions of the authorities in the series of arrests”.
Police used water cannons and tear gas to break up two major rallies last month. Other protests have been staged. Ethnic Indian activists, lawyers and other demonstrators have been arrested, some charged with illegal assembly and sedition.
“We are seeking an immediate appointment with the Prime Minister to discuss these pressing matters of state,” the statement added.
Mr Lim Guan Eng of the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of the four opposition parties that released the statement, said: “There must be a way out to national reconciliation and if (Abdullah) denies that Malaysia faces serious national problems, then I think we are approaching a level of confrontation that I think is completely unnecessary.”
Separately, a grouping of four women NGOs including Sisters in Islam released another statement, which read: “We are shocked by (Mr) Abdullah Badawi’s approval of the police’s arbitrary arrests of some members of the civil society groups. The high amount of bail imposed on those detained is also unjustified.”
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar yesterday rejected the United States’ renewed call on Monday for Malaysia to allow peaceful assembly and the free expression of views.
“People want to get together within the law, if they don’t cause problem for the other citizens then we have no problem with that. But if they jeopardise public security or safety, then we take action,” he told reporters.
“So, I don’t think the comment from the US side is a fair comment. I don’t think they understand the situation very well,” he added.