Special for USA TODAY
November 22, 2015
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — As the summit of Southeast Asian nations ended here Sunday, much of the focus was not on the leaders’ discussions with President Obama but on a corruption scandal dogging the summit’s host and his government’s crackdown on civil liberties.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, who told Obama that he is “committed to reforms,” stands accused of shifting nearly $700 million from a government-owned development fund into private bank accounts.
The fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), is under investigation in Malaysia, the United States, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Switzerland. Opposition leaders in parliament filed a formal no-confidence vote against him in October.
Political opponents and human rights groups allege that Najib has responded to the increased criticism with a campaign of intimidation. In July, he fired a deputy prime minister and the attorney general who had been investigating him. Since February, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been serving a five-year sentence on a sodomy conviction, which supporters argue is politically motivated.
Since the scandal broke, “things have gone a bit out of control,” said Charles Santiago, an opposition member of parliament. “I think the government is feeling the heat, especially the prime minister. So to avoid attacks against him and further criticism of his rule, he’s putting the pressure on civil society groups.”
Human Rights Watch released a report in October that charges the Malaysian government with a pattern of using broad and vaguely worded laws to arrest, investigate and imprison critics. The report said the practice began to intensify after the 2013 election, in which Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition lost the popular vote but held on to a majority in parliament.
“President Obama and other world leaders visiting Malaysia right now are meeting a prime minister who is leading a charge against civil society critics, using draconian laws to haul them into police stations and courts for their comments to the media, on Facebook or on Twitter,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that a full-fledged crackdown on free expression is underway, trying to silence those criticizing government policies and of course the massive 1MDB corruption scandal.”
Among the laws that critics of the government say are being used to target them is the Sedition Act, a colonial-era law that Najib promised to repeal in 2012. He has instead strengthened it, and it has been used to target everyone from political cartoonists to members of parliament.
Eric Paulsen, executive director of the human rights group Lawyers for Liberty, was arrested and charged last February under the Sedition Act for a tweet he posted that was critical of a government agency that issues sermons for mosques in the Muslim-majority country. “We are talking about, in 2015, somebody can spend a few years in jail, basically for a hundred-letter tweet,” he said. “It is a very jarring notion.”
Paulsen said the arbitrary application of the law was already having a widely felt impact. “You just never know,” he said. “There’s always a sword hanging over you. I have to be much more careful these days. My tweets and my press statements have definitely toned down. There is a chilling effect, no doubt about it.”
Another government critic who is facing criminal charges is Maria Chin Abdullah, leader of Bersih 2.0, a coalition of dozens of civil society groups calling for fair elections.
The group has held massive street rallies in Malaysia since 2007, and Chin Abdullah was charged this month under another law, the Peaceful Assembly Act. Prosecutors claim she violated the law by failing to give police the necessary 10-day notice before staging a rally in August. She has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
The increasing crackdown is “a show of desperation by (Najib’s) government,” she said.
During his three-day visit to Malaysia, Obama focused on other issues, including the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and security in the South China Sea. But he told reporters he also talked with Najib about the importance of a free civil society, and he held a private meeting with Malaysian human rights leaders Saturday.
Chin Abdullah, who participated in the meeting, said she told the president his visit was harming the cause of human rights in Malaysia. “We wanted to let him know that supporting and having trade relations with Malaysia actually undermines the democratic processes in this country,” she said. “The U.S. being perceived as supportive of Najib does us more harm than good.”
Obama also discussed terrorism with Najib since Malaysia, as a Muslim country, has emerged as a key regional partner in the counterterrorism fight. However, critics charge that a key tool used by the Malaysian government, the 2015 Prevention of Terrorism Act, is being turned against them, too.
“The rule of law is being subverted,” said human rights lawyer Andrew Khoo. “The government is choosing to define any anti-government activity as terrorism. Because terrorism doesn’t have a fixed definition, the idea is to extend the concept of terrorism to cover anti-Najib supporters.”
As the ASEAN summit closed, Najib’s critics saw no indications that the human rights situation would improve because corruption and abuse of power remain deeply entrenched in the government.
“As long as Najib is desperate and insecure, it will get worse,” Chin Abdullah said.