PM Abdullah defends crackdown on anti-government protests

The Jakarta Post, 13 Dec 2007
KUALA LUMPUR (AP): Malaysia’s prime minister has defended a crackdown on recent anti-government protests, including by ethnic minority Indians, saying he will not tolerate people who incite violence for “personal gains.”

In an opinion piece published Friday in the Asian Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wrote that “the right to protest is fundamental, but it is a right that must be matched by a responsibility to respect general public safety.”
Abdullah’s government was rocked by a rally on Nov. 25 by at least 20,000 ethnic Indians, representing a community that has remained largely impoverished 50 years after independence because of what it says are racially motivated policies that favor the majority Malay Muslims in jobs, education, religion and politics.
Indians are 8 percent of Malaysia’s 27 million people, the third biggest community after Malays who are 60 percent and Chinese who are 25 percent. The Malays control politics and the Chinese dominate business while Indians are largely a work force of menial laborers.
The Indian rally was dispersed by police with force, and 31 people were charged with attempted murder for a head injury sustained by a policeman. The protest leaders face sedition charges.
“As Prime Minister I am willing to listen to all points of view and concerns that are honestly and reasonably presented,” Abdullah wrote. “However, we cannot and shall not tolerate those who seek to incite or provoke violence for their own personal gain.”
“If protesters have not sought authorization, then the police are bound by duty to enforce the law and ensure public safety,” he said, citing a law that requires an assembly of more than four people to get a police permit.
Protest organizers had, however, sought a permit, which was denied.
Police had also denied permission for an earlier opposition-led rally on Nov. 10 to demand judicial and electoral reforms. That rally also was dispersed with force.
Abdullah wrote that his government is pursuing electoral reforms including updating the voter list and use of indelible ink to mark fingers of voters to prevent double voting. Critics say the steps are too small and few to prevent widespread voter fraud that favors the ruling coalition.
Abdullah said police had offered demonstrators in both cases to assemble in stadiums. “Instead, they chose to take to the streets, disrupting people’s lives and putting themselves and others in harm’s way.”
The two protests – a reflection of growing dissent in the country – have presented the biggest challenge to Abdullah’s authority ahead of general elections that he says will be called soon.
It has also upset the carefully nurtured racial peace that has been the hallmark of this multiethnic nation for nearly four decades.
“How we address the challenges that have arisen today … will not only determine the economic future of our great nation, but will become the bedrock that defines our character for generations to come,” Abdullah wrote. (**)