On 13 December 2007, the police in Malaysia arrested five activists of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) under the Internal Security Act, legislation that allows for the detention of suspects considered threats to national security for up to two years without trial. The five men were not subjected to the customary 60 days of initial detention that generally includes harsh interrogation and torture. Worse, they were sent directly to the Kamunting detention camp, a prison in the northern state of Perak that is specifically for Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees. Kamunting is Malaysia’s own Guantanamo Bay.
The ISA is the most-feared tool of state retribution for political dissidents in Malaysia, as the detention order is generally not subject to judicial scrutiny and is renewable indefinitely. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people have been arrested under the ISA since its inception in 1960. The longest ISA detention was for a period of 32 years, while current detainees have served up to six years in detention without trial. A hangover from colonial-era legislation, the ISA was used particularly against the country’s communist insurgency (and all ‘undesirable’ left movements) during the 1960s, but since then mainstream political opponents have also been targeted. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar has defended the use of the ISA against the Hindraf activists on the grounds that Malaysia is “a very sensitive country, where we are multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious. And if you start to incite people, it can go out of hand.”
In addition to some high-profile political uses, the legislation has been wielded on various occasions over the past decade against individuals alleged to be members of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and Kumpulan Militan/Mujahidden Malaysia (KMM), both labelled by the government as terrorist groups. Hindraf was alleged to be linked to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) only a few days before the arrests of the activists. The accusation seems to have been made without evidence and, indeed, would have been considered comical were it not for the seriousness of the circumstances. Hindraf did deny the allegation, wondering publicly whether they could in turn baselessly accuse the police and attorney-general of having links with al-Qaeda.
The Hindraf arrests were an event waiting to happen. The group, comprised of a handful of Indian lawyers and activists, organised an unprecedented rally on 25 November, which was attended by some 30,000 Malaysian Indians beneath the Petronas Towers in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. The event had been preceded by a series of well-supported smaller Hindraf rallies, coupled with campaigning at the grassroots level in various parts of the country. By the time of the end-November rally, these actions had succeeded in galvanising the Indian community at a level never before seen.
Indians in Malaysia have historically been a safe, pro-government vote bank. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the main Indian-based party in a coalition government that has ruled the country since political independence in 1957, has always insisted that the welfare of the Indian population is being looked after, and that the people of Indian descent have fared well over the past half-century. Given the recent events, however, the MIC’s longtime position as the voice of Malaysian Indians may currently be undergoing dramatic transformation.
Modern Malaysia, with a population of around 27 million, is built on the peaceful coexistence of three main ethnic groups – the Malays, Chinese and Indians. The Malays, who are Muslim, comprise about 60 percent of the population, and control the government and political power. The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is the main party in the governing coalition, and its political mainstay is the ostensible defence of the supremacy of Islam and Malay rights and privileges. The Chinese community make up about 24 percent of the population, and is generally better off financially. The ethnic Indian community, which mainly came from South India more than a century ago to work as labourers on the rubber plantations, makes up about seven percent of Malaysia’s population. They generally represent an underprivileged minority, although there is now also a sizable Indian middle class and a good number of professionals.
Hindraf’s demands are not new. They call for greater equality and fairer treatment for Indians. They also emphasise that the affirmative-action programmes and policies that give preferential treatment in business, education and employment to the Malays are discriminatory, and have led to higher rates of poverty, social ills and crime in the Indian communities. The spark for the recent protests, which was seized upon by Hindraf, came from a series of events that pitted the government and Islamic religious authorities against the mainly Hindu Indians.
This tension came closer to the surface over the course of 2007, as several Hindu temples were allowed to be demolished in land disputes. The situation worsened during court cases that involved Indians and highlighted issues of Islam, concerning conversion, apostasy, divorce, custody and family matters. These included the bizarre case of the ‘body snatching’ of an alleged Muslim convert from Hinduism who had died, to be buried in a Muslim cemetery; and the detention of an Indian Muslim woman in a ‘faith rehabilitation’ camp for marrying a Hindu man and starting a family, without his conversion to Islam.
Instead of looking into these very legitimate grievances, the Malaysian authorities chose to exploit some of Hindraf’s racially and religiously slanted arguments, which were perceived as anti-Malay and anti-Islam. They also focused on exaggerated claims by the Indian activists that Indians were suffering from “ethnic cleansing” and “mini-genocide”. This use of hyperbole allowed the Kuala Lumpur authorities to claim, with reasonable public support, that their harsh intervention was justified. The government alleged that Hindraf had been spreading lies and – perhaps the most damning accusation in modern Malaysia – causing racial and religious tensions.
But anti-government tension in Malaysia had been building for months, and had not been confined to the Indian community. Prior to the Hindraf rally, on 26 September the Bar Council and some 2000 lawyers, in an unprecedented move, marched to the office of the prime minister. Their demands for greater judicial independence came after yet another ‘judge-fixing’ scandal had come to light, following a string of such episodes over the last few years. This was followed by a massive rally on 10 November, organised by opposition parties and civil society, which was attended by an estimated 50,000 protesters calling for a fraud-free election, which is expected to take place in early 2008. The government was indeed rattled, as the last major such demonstration had not occurred for nearly a decade.
In the intervening weeks in mid-November, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi had called on protestors to remain at home. He insisted that taking to the streets was not the “Malaysia way”, and maintained that there existed forums in which their complaints could be heard. The government-owned television channel replayed montages of recent demonstrations and violence that had taken place in Burma and Pakistan, reminding the audience that “this is not our culture” and that “demonstration will always end in violence.” Government officials also kept warning Malaysians that the multi-racial and multi-religious composition of the country was combustible, which served as a reminder of the race riots of 1969, when hundreds were killed.
In the days leading up to the 25 November rally, many Indians were stopped and questioned by the Malaysian police, which sought to dissuade them from agitating. But despite harassment and threats of arrest, the Hindraf demonstrators came out in full force, defying a government ban. Early in the morning of 25 November, the police cordoned off and attacked hundreds of demonstrators, who had gathered at a major Hindu temple in preparation for the rally. Once the demonstration got underway, security personnel upped the ante, using teargas and water cannons laced with burning chemical to break up the protest. By the end of the rally, more than 400 had been arrested, many charged with participating in an “illegal assembly”, for “rioting”, and even the “attempted murder” of a police officer who was injured.
Even though the Malaysian Constitution in principle protects the right to peaceful assembly, other legislation defines any gathering of more than four persons without a police permit as illegal. Predictably, the police deny most requests for permits by opposition parties and civil society, using the pretext of public safety. Either way, all pretence of democratic rights disappeared when more arrests took place in December, particularly of lawyers and activists (including this writer) who marched on the eve of World Human Rights Day, as well as other activists who tried to march to the Parliament two days later. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, a normally conservative body, came out in defence of freedom of assembly following the recent events. Commission officials said that “the possibility of public disorder should be based on evidence, not speculation or imagination”, and called for repeal of the permit requirement for public assembly. It further noted that the “arrests and prosecutions [appear] selective and seemingly biased.”
When Prime Minister Badawi took office in 2004, he said that he was determined to depart from the excesses and undemocratic norms then associated with his predecessor. Instead, scandal after scandal has broken out involving government officials and the judiciary, while the media remains government-owned or –controlled. Meanwhile, the cost of living has risen dramatically. All of this is what ultimately peaked in the series of demonstrations that took place over the past two months, and all of which will be considered particularly ‘untimely’ by the government, in view of the upcoming general elections.
The aftermath of the 25 November rally has emphasised the common perception of ethnic and religious divisions in Malaysia – despite the fact that, on closer analysis, the discontent is actually due to poverty and economic marginalisation. Whatever misgivings one may have about Hindraf’s positions on issues, the organisation’s leadership has accomplished something significant: a new political consciousness and awakening of Malaysia’s Indian community. At the same time, this has been accompanied by a challenge to the government and the ruling coalition to understand and internalise the fact that citizens of Indian origin are economically disfranchised, frustrated and alienated from Project Malaysia. The indications are that Indians of Malaysia are no longer prepared to listen to the MIC as the voice of their community. If, as currently seems likely, a substantial number are prepared to vote the other way in the elections, a political shift could currently be taking place that has not been seen in the 50 years of Malaysia’s independent history.
-- Eric Paulsen is a lawyer and activist based in Kuala Mumpur.
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