Carrying out his promise earlier last month that he would “defy international norms” to ensure the nation’s “security”, Malaysia’s besieged prime minister Mahathir Mohamed continued his crackdown on political dissent with the arrest of individuals under the feared Internal Security Act (ISA). As we go to press, more people are being sought as scores of activists have gone into hiding.
Since April 10, nine people have been taken from their homes in the small hours of the morning to unknown destinations. Mahathir and his police chief have announced that the arrests took place after they obtained “proofs” of a plan to acquire mortar and rocket-launchers to cause violence in the capital on ‘Black 14’. Black 14 is the local name for April 14, the day when former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was sentenced to 6 years’ imprisonment after a long and bizarre trial on charges of corruption and abuse of power. (A year later, he was given another 9 years after an equally controversial trial accusing him of sodomy.)
The allegations are nothing new and come as no a shock to the public, despite the gravity of the charges. The ISA, a draconian relic of British Malaya that was used to combat communism in the 1940s, comes in handy: under it detainees need not be taken to court even if allegations are not backed by evidence. The indifference of the public, despite the media predicting mass violence and rioting to topple the Mahathir regime, also reflects a general disbelief in any argument the government puts forward to justify its attacks on the opposition. Three years ago, the ISA was used to arrest not only the country’s deputy PM, but also scores of others aligned with him. Among them were writer Dr Munawar Anees and Sukma Darmawan, who were arrested and days later brought to court with their faces covered to be convicted after trials that lasted barely half an hour.
Months before the planned rally on April 14, periodic crackdowns had been underway. But the government had resisted the temptation to use the ISA, instead arresting and trying people on various acts ranging from illegal assembly to the official secrets act. Mahathir’s main fear is of demonstrations and public rallies against him that attract large crowds. These gatherings have been a cornerstone of the reformasi movement since September 20, 1998, when Anwar Ibrahim was arrested hours after addressing more than 150,000 people at a mammoth gathering. Three years later, such gatherings are no longer unusual: in fact, more and more Malaysians can now boast of having the experience of demonstrating. With events in Manila and Jakarta during the last few years fresh in his memory, it is not surprising that Mahathir’s tightly-controlled media churns out daily warnings from the police to the public not to participate in “illegal assemblies”.
On April 14, in a strong show of force, hundreds of police and armed paramilitary officers were stationed all over the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in a move to quash any rally held to mark Anwar’s conviction. Opposition parties instead said that they would hand over a memorandum to the Human Rights Commission: even for this the police warned of severe punishment. More than 5,000 people displayed real courage when they gathered despite armed police in the city centre, shouting the takbir and reformasi slogans. The two-hour gathering ended peacefully, perhaps to Mahathir’s disappointment: he could have used violence to justify his allegations.
The government now appears on the defensive even when it launches attacks. It is now at loggerheads even with the officially appointed Human Rights Commission. When the Commission was formed last year, neither the government nor the opposition expected that it would carry out its function well. Since its inception, however, the Commission, headed by the former deputy prime minister Musa Hitam, has come out strongly against oppressive laws and police violence against protesters, and demanded more ‘democratic space’.
When Anwar Ibrahim’s mother died on April 3, tens of thousands flocked to his residence and the burial ground to greet him; he was allowed by prison authorities to pay his last respects. The funeral briefly turned into an anti-Mahathir rally because some could not control their emotion at seeing Anwar’s physical condition. Anwar, who is now in a wheelchair, has been in a government hospital since November last year because of spinal injuries from the beating inflicted by the then police chief. He is awaiting clearance from the government to undergo endoscopic microsurgery in Germany, a method of treatment not available locally, which might prevent paralysis. The regime is refusing even this basic right, with Mahathir accusing Anwar of faking his illness and alleging that he will abscond once he is out of the country. Yet really Mahathir might well find himself able to breathe more easily in Malaysia if Anwar can be got out without Mahathir and his government seeming to connive at it.