Malaysian Arrests Put in Question Vow of Rights

Published: August 2, 2009
New York Times / International Herald Tribune

BANGKOK — Soon after coming to power four months ago, Najib Razak, the Malaysian prime minister, vowed to temper the country’s repressive laws and respect civil liberties though they have often been ignored.

But Malaysia’s honeymoon of liberalism hit the rocks over the weekend, when the police broke up a large rally in Kuala Lumpur, arresting nearly 600 people and reaffirming the governing party’s longstanding policy of zero tolerance toward street protests.

Opposition parties, which organized the rally, were calling for the repeal of a law that allows the government to jail its critics indefinitely without charge. The opposition is also pressing the government to expand an inquiry into the recent death under mysterious circumstances of a political aide after a late-night interrogation by anticorruption officials.

News services estimated that the rally on Saturday, which was broken up by thousands of police officers using tear gas and water cannons, drew about 20,000 protesters, making it the largest demonstration in two years.

“We can provide them stadiums where they can shout themselves hoarse till dawn, but don’t cause disturbance in the streets,” Mr. Najib said Sunday, according to the Malaysian news media.

Since taking office in April, Mr. Najib has gained favor with investors and businesspeople by partly dismantling a system of racial preferences that long caused resentment among the country’s minorities.

He also released 13 political detainees held without trial. An opinion poll conducted from June 19 to July 1 showed 65 percent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with his performance. The poll, by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, surveyed 1,060 voters.

More recently, Mr. Najib’s government has been criticized as reverting to the authoritarian tactics of previous administrations.

A former health minister and stalwart of the governing coalition, Chua Jui Meng, defected to the opposition in July, saying that Mr. Najib represented an “iron fist behind the velvet glove.”

Lim Kit Siang, a prominent opposition politician, said in a blog entry on Sunday that the large number of people detained “underlines” that the “greatest violators of human rights are often the police and the law enforcement agencies.”

The death of the political aide, Teoh Beng Hock, in July has galvanized opposition parties and caused widespread outrage, especially among the minority Chinese.

Mr. Teoh, a legislative aide in the opposition-controlled state of Selangor, was found dead beneath the 14th-story window of the offices of the country’s anticorruption commission after a nightlong interrogation. A pathologist’s report said he died of internal injuries from a fall.

A government minister initially said Mr. Teoh, 30, committed suicide, but his belt and back pockets were torn, adding to speculation that he might have been forced out the window.

After initial resistance, the government bowed to public pressure and ordered an inquiry into Mr. Teoh’s death as well as the interrogation tactics of the anticorruption officers.

Deaths in police custody have increased in recent years, according to Suaram, a human rights group. According to the Malaysian Home Ministry, 1,535 people died in police custody between 2003 and 2007, the latest year for which data is available.


Malaysia criticised over protest crackdown

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s government faced criticism Sunday for arresting hundreds of people and using tear gas and water cannon to break up a protest against laws that allow detention without trial.

More than 60 of the 589 people detained in Saturday’s protest, which saw at least 15,000 people massing in chaotic scenes in downtown Kuala Lumpur, were still in custody Sunday according to media reports and lawyers.

“I experienced first-hand the indiscriminate police use of tear gas and its corrosive effects,” said Lim Kit Siang, a veteran opposition lawmaker who took part in the protest.

He condemned Prime Minister Najib Razak over the heavy-handed police response, which saw 5,000 officers, including riot squad members, play a cat-and-mouse game with protesters through city streets.

“Is this an indication that the Najib premiership is going to be the most draconian of all prime ministers since independence in 1957?” he asked.

Najib had criticised the protest plans before the demonstration, saying that he had already promised to review the controversial legislation after taking office in April.

On Sunday he defended the police action, saying they had a duty to preserve security.

“Street demonstrations should not continue and the authorities can take action,” he was quoted as saying by the national news agency Bernama.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is charge of the police force, reportedly said the Internal Security Act (ISA) could be amended as soon as the next parliament session.

But the opposition and rights groups are calling for the colonial-era ISA — which has been used to detain government opponents as well as suspected terrorists — to be abolished.

Latifah Koya, a lawyer for the arrested protestors, said police were continuing to hold senior opposition lawmaker R. Sivarasa, as well as the wife and son of an ISA detainee. Two other children were also in custody.

“We totally condemn the police action. People who merely wore tee shirts with an anti-ISA logo were also arrested. We demand their immediate release,” she told AFP.

Political analyst Khoo Kay Peng said that the results of 2008 elections, which saw a major swing away from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, showed Malaysians were demanding greater freedoms.

“The people want change. If the Barisan Nasional wants to remain in power they have to listen to the people who desire liberty and respect for individual rights,” he said.

“They took to the streets because the government has not provided an alternate platform to engage the people,” he said.

Khoo said the coalition, which has struggled to claw back support since the landmark 2008 polls, faced defeat at the next general elections if it failed to introduce democratic reforms.

  1. #1 by pulau_sibu on Monday, 3 August 2009 - 11:34 am

    It is really shameful. This happened when the mother of democracy, Corazon Aquino, has just passed away. Her effort in throwing out the dictator and bringing democracy to the Asian people should not be lost in vain.

  2. #2 by HJ Angus on Monday, 3 August 2009 - 11:37 am

    The government appears unable to solve the street protests except with their usual use of excessive force.

  3. #3 by jbozz on Monday, 3 August 2009 - 1:46 pm

    Stadium should be allowed to stage the peaceful protest to repel ISA, also provided free by the BN govt. this will be cheaper than mobilizing the Police riot squad. There will also be concert by local artist, and speech by the body who oppose the ISA. At the end of the day boxes should be pass around to collect donation, to fight corruption. There should be a funds, if the funds grow mean people are againt the ISA and want it repel.

  4. #4 by Bobster on Monday, 3 August 2009 - 2:28 pm

    Ya ya they are blaming the protesters for causing ‘$200 millions’ losses last Sat.

    Come on, I was caught in the jam crawling round and round in town, making u-turn after u-turn and couldnt get out of KL after work. Electronic signboard saying ‘Ikut Arahan Polis’ but apparently officers just stood there chatting, blocking road, laughing!!! What police instruction???!!!!

    Police dept causing massive jam on 1 August 2009 and not demo.

    Pls make it clear and knock some silly sense out of Hisham’s kotak kosong.

    Road closure becoming a norm to flame public sentiment.

    Police day rehearsal – road closure during peak
    Merdeka day rehearsal – road closure during peak
    Agong birthday rehearsal – road closure during peak
    De tour le langkawi – road closure during peak
    DBKL day – road closure

    My ass, why dont close down the whole KL in your grandfather’s name.

  5. #5 by k1980 on Monday, 3 August 2009 - 2:32 pm

    Bersih, Cekap, Amanah. Kepimpinan Melalui Teladan, Malaysia Boleh, Gemilang, Cemerlang dan Terbilang, Islam Hadhari, 1Malaysia…

    Ever wonder how the rakyat has been sodded under these slogans?

  6. #6 by wanderer on Monday, 3 August 2009 - 3:20 pm

    Nothing will change as long as these UMNO goons stay on in power. Same old tactic…one step forward and two steps backwards. This sort of stale tactic only come from mafia and cheats.
    Malaysia has a Loverboy as CEO of the nation…life is cheap under this dodgy creep!

  7. #7 by i_love_malaysia on Monday, 3 August 2009 - 4:51 pm

    Najis, Krismudin and Musa Hassan applied what they learnt from their gurus!!! They were applying what they had learnt well all these years!!! So they will continue to do so until GE13 before the next PR Federal Govt coming on board!!!
    This is only true to the old saying Talk is easy, change requires much affort!!! We all know very well that they have not changed, lest talk about transformation!!!

  8. #8 by jbozz on Tuesday, 4 August 2009 - 10:29 am

    Change is to walk the painful path of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. Awakening each and every Malaysian to fight injustice and abuse of power.

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