About a decade ago, people in Malaysia had little choice but to rely on the tightly-controlled government media. There was no Internet, nor Harakah, the popular bilingual tabloid published by the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). On November 21, 1985, news splashed across the UMNO-owned newspapers that 14 ‘criminals’ had died in clashes with the police. No one bothered to ask who the criminals were. No one really knew what had happened. Only Kampung Memali, a small village in the northern state of Kedah, bears witness to that shameful crime in contemporary Malaysian history.
The people of Memali did not merely fight against plainclothes policemen or baton-wielding thugs, as is presently the case in Malaysia’s reformasi protests. They confronted live bullets fired from M-16 rifles, and armoured vehicles deployed by prime minister Mahathir Mohamed, who is also the minister of home affairs. And for that, they paid with their lives.
Memali is still haunted. The villagers who were killed are now revered as martyrs, and their graves are visited regularly by Malaysian Muslims who are still in a state of shock. As Ustad Fadhil Noor, now president of PAS, had pointed out in the wake of the massacre, ‘They may be able to cover up history as it occurred today, but they will not be able to continue covering it up 10, 20 or 30 years from now.’
Thirteen years after the massacre, during a recent trip, this writer decided to stop by in Kampung Memali. It has aquired for Muslims in Malaysia a hallowness similar to Karbala. This is where, they believe, a group of people decided to take a stand and fell as shuhada.
Even before we passed the huge signboard announcing that we were in Kampung Memali, an air of contempt for the UMNO government could be felt. The white and green flags of PAS were visible everywhere. A huge banner hung across the telephone wire, just opposite the Madrasah where al-Shahid Ibrahim Mahmood - the man who was at the centre of the storm - had once taught..
We had earlier planned to see the site where the massacre took place, the house of al-Shahid Ibrahim, to get a firsthand account of what had really happened. We did not know whom to ask. There was nobody around, except a woman stallkeeper who, in-between tending to her child, took our orders. There were some children playing Dam (chess) on a homemade checker board using Coca-Cola bottle seals. They were too young to know about the incident.
We asked the woman about Ibrahim Mahmood without realising that we were actually sitting only a few metres from the house of the fallen martyr - the place where bullets from automatic machine guns were exchanged for sticks and shouts of Takbir.
‘How’s reformasi over there?’, someone asked us, obviously aware that we were from Kuala Lumpur which had witnessed huge anti-Mahathir protests in the wake of the sacking of deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. The woman called him Pak Long (Uncle). Pak Long came to sit with us. Then, perhaps encouraged by some eager looking people in front of him, he began to give an account of what had happened in the wee hours of November 20, 1985.
‘The police had surrounded the whole village by then. Motorists to and from Memali were stopped and their names taken. Ustaz Ibrahim had just finished delivering his daily lecture - kuliah Subuh - after prayers,’ he said.
‘On that day, the police numbered around 4,000; they were heavily armed and dangerous. They were acting on orders from Mahathir to arrest Ibrahim Mahmood, a man the villagers were ready to defend till their last drop of blood - which they did.’
Better known as ‘Ibrahim Libya’, he was a well respected Islamic scholar who had studied at the University of Tripoli. He had also studied in India and at al-Azhar in Cairo. Upon his return, he had even appeared on the government’s television channel to give talks on Islam. But his close association with PAS worried the Mahathir regime so much that the country’s Islamic Religious Department (Pusat Islam) started making allegations of ‘deviation’ against him.
Ustaz Ibrahim Mahmood was to be detained under the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) but he had refused to give himself up. He had decided that the dreaded ISA - an act which gives unlimited powers to the home minister to detain without trial any person deemed a threat to the country - must be challenged at all costs. This is the same act under which Mahathir recently threw his deputy into jail, only to appear days later with a bruised back and black eye.
Until now, the crimes allegedly committed by the villagers have yet to be specified. Mahathir who was abroad when the massacre took place, said upon his return from China that the villagers ‘had resisted arrest which was a crime.’ Since there was (and still is) an increasing tendency to use the ISA to silence political opposition, it is clear that the only crime the government could pin on Ustaz Ibrahim is said to have been committed after the police were sent in.
‘But we were all ready to die... it was for the sake of truth,’ Pak Long said without regrets. His own relatives were among those killed by the police. He narrated how almost all the villagers in Memali, including women and children, were thrown into police trucks and taken away. ‘The whole of Memali was almost deserted. There was no one to arrange a proper burial for those killed,’ he recalled.
Even now, Memali looks deserted. Except for the occasional passing of motocycles, there is a strange air of silence hanging over the village. It was as if the Memali incident had just happened last week. And looking at the pathetic condition of the madrasah and the mosque, no one can dispute that the Malaysian government has ‘disowned’ the village. The prayer hall is dilapidated and poorly furnished, a far cry from any other mosque in the country. If any proof were needed to demolish the myth that Malaysia is a model Muslim country (as claimed by Mahathir) this would be sufficient.
‘His widow and the rest of his family still stay here,’ said Pak Long, pointing towards the house of al-Shahid Ibrahim. It was there that many villagers were shot dead by the notorious special action squad from the police force, the same group of thugs who have in recent weeks emerged in the streets of Kuala Lumpur attacking hapless demonstrators. At the entrance to the house, there were writings about the merit of jihad and martyrdom in Islam.
As we left the village, some questions remained unanswered. If al-Shahid Ibrahim and his followers were not martyrs, as was so loudly proclaimed by Mahathir and other UMNO leaders at the time, and it has not yet been proved that they were criminals and deviants, who were they?
Muslimedia: January 16-31, 1999