Nov 25, 2008

Malaysia's Authoritarian Resurgence

Using the ISA to swat political gadflies is an unfortunate tradition in Malaysian politics. We were reminded of this as activists marked the 21st anniversary of Operasi Lalang, a police action in which 105 government critics were detained under the ISA during the Mahathir era.

What we have learned about Malaysian politics over the years is that once a period of arbitrary arrest and detention begins, frivolous detentions very quickly multiply as authorities suddenly find it difficult to determine when exactly the ISA shouldn’t be applied.

This tendency was apparent in the southern state of Johor on Oct. 17 when Cheng Lee Whee was taken into custody under the ISA after protesting a series of squatter evictions. Authorities there interpreted Ms. Whee’s efforts to file a legal complaint against heavy-handed police as an act of “spreading information which could cause fear among the people.”

These reports come to the fore just as Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has announced that he will step down in March 2009 to make way for his current deputy prime minister. Before judging the impact of the recent ISA detentions on Prime Minister Badawi’s legacy, I must point out that it wasn’t very long ago that a positive argument could still be made for his governance.

The watershed elections of March 2008 that saw record losses for Mr. Badawi’s Malay-based political party (UMNO) were viewed as nothing short of a disaster by the ruling elite. (Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad suggested that seppuku might be an appropriate response from the current head of state). Some observers suggested, however, that UMNO’s setbacks reflected Mr. Badawi’s openness to dissent and commitment to democracy.

There was talk of his willingness to amend the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA), which Mr. Mahathir has used to suppress political activity on college campuses and quash student unrest. As old-school politicians demanded his ouster, some thought that Prime Minister Badawi would take the opportunity to make a clean beak with the past by addressing some of the country’s anachronistic legal policies.

As his administration has begun to unravel, however, Mr. Badawi’s recent moves seem to ensure that he will be remembered as anything but a reformist. With the banning of the Hindu Rights Actions Force (Hindraf) on Oct. 15 and the continued detention of Tamil lawyers who have sought to redress ethnic disparities, activists throughout the country are wondering who next will be denied the right of due process under the ISA.

Under criticism, Mr. Badawi defended the detentions earlier this month by claiming that the ISA legislation is completely appropriate since other countries including the United States have enacted similar policies recently. Such an assertion ignores the fact that both front-running candidates for the American presidency have vowed to close the United States’ arbitrary detention facility in Guantanamo Bay and clean up the vast legal mess left by the Bush administration’s mishandling of the “enemy combatant” issue.

Prime Minister Badawi now appears largely committed to retaining the policies of his predecessor. At the same time a deepening divide is becoming apparent between reformists energized by Anwar Ibrahim’s recent return to parliament and the recalcitrant rump of a fading regime

This is an Extract of a report from the Far Eastern Economic Review. For Full Report GO HERE
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