15 December, 2007

ISA arrests and a reluctant PM: the inside story

Facing a torrent of criticism for invoking the dreaded Internal Security Act to arrest five ethnic Indian leaders, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said on Friday he had acted to protect public order and national security.

The arrests drew an avalanche of criticism from Opposition leaders, including former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim who was himself detained under the ISA during Mahathir Mohamed’s tenure. Ibrahim termed it a “law of the jungle” and vowed to abolish it if his party came to power.

“I too disagree with a few things (that Hindraf leaders say they stand for),” Ibrahim said. “But what about the welfare of the Indian community? What about the Indian poor? What about the Hindu temples that the government is demolishing?”


For more than a week, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi agonised over whether to reach for the Internal Security Act (ISA) to deal with the threat posed by Hindraf.
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Anecdotal evidence suggests that his Cabinet ministers urged him to sign the detention without trial orders, arguing almost to a man that a soft approach could encourage other groups to hit the streets and make demands on behalf of their communities. The result: chaos, political instability and a return to the dark days of racial strife.
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Corporate captains also weighed in, saying that a firm hand would send a signal to the investing community that the administration would not allow a few street protests to become the enduring image of the country, almost as if the image of tear gas and water cannons was burnt onto the retina of those peering into Malaysia.

Even opinion polls showed that 60 per cent of the population wanted the Prime Minister to take a firmer stand with protesters, some going as far as to suggest the use of the dreaded ISA.
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But Mr Abdullah did not go with the flow. He argued that the best approach was to charge the rabble-rousers in court with sedition or illegal assembly, pointing out that all the tools available to the government — including the ISA — must be used judiciously. He told government officials that the use of the ISA could invite condemnation, both at home and abroad.
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So, what changed his position?
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P Uthayakumar and his gang did. Mr Abdullah reasoned that once they were hauled up and charged with offences in court, they would ease off on their campaign of accusing the government of ethnic cleansing, allowing the level of mercury among the various communities in Malaysia to drop.
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The opposite happened.
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Out on bail, Uthayakumar and other members of Hindraf embarked on a roadshow, visiting temples outside the Klang Valley and rousing their audience with talk of how Indians were being systematically marginalised in the country, how ethnic cleansing was widespread and how temples were being pulled down wantonly by local authorities.
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What followed were inflammatory text messages urging Malays to defend themselves against those who were trying to deny them of their special rights as guaranteed by the Constitution.
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Uthayakumar knew that with each passing day and with each challenge to the government, he was closer to being arrested under the ISA.
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Perhaps that was why he video-taped a message for his supporters in which he said: "By arresting us under the ISA, the issue of the marginalisation and permanent colonisation of the Indians in Malaysia will take a higher profile."
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Uthayakumar, V Ganabatirau, A Manoharan, R Kenghadharan and T Vasantha Kumar were detained under the ISA on Thursday. All five were sent to the Kamunting Detention Centre in Taiping.
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As expected, the condemnation from abroad was stinging. The United States government signalled its displeasure at the detention of the Hindraf Five, as did Human Rights Watch and a group of non-governmental organisations. Coverage in the world press was less than flattering.
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In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal wrote: "When Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took office in 2004, he was welcomed as a moderniser who would expand democratic freedoms in Malaysia. Yesterday, his government resurrected the Internal Security Act, a colonial-era law that gives the executive almost unlimited power to detain opponents.
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"The move raises serious questions about Mr Abdullah's commitment to democracy.''
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Such piercing words will hurt the PM and Malaysia.
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But inaction was never going to be an option, once the Hindraf leaders upped the stakes by continuing their campaign. Not in a country where the show of force by one race can prompt an unfortunate reaction by another. Not in a country where only six years ago, a skirmish between neighbours on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur led to clashes between Malays and Indians.
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Not in a country where the majority of the people expect the government to show a strong hand, and leadership in the face of a challenge.
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After the arrests, Mr Abdullah said: "Between the freedom of expression and public safety, I will give importance to public safety. This is not a nation that shuts the mouth of everyone.
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"The people are not dumb … I am duty-bound to act because the people want the government to take action.''
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He is also duty-bound to find out how a group of unknowns managed to galvanise Indians to take to the streets.
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On Friday, he took a serious step in that direction by sitting down with representatives of 13 Indian NGOs, and separately with members of the Bar Council. During the two-hour session with the NGOs, he listened and took notes. He heard about the despair some in the community feel over their places of worship being destroyed, the concern over the displacement of Indians from estates, low wages and a laundry list of issues.
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There is little doubt that the government has to address the issue of a segment of Malaysian society being marginalised. Malays, Indians, Chinese and others continue to live below the poverty line. If anything, the Hindraf issue shows how combustible issues such as poverty and deprivation can be, if ignored or consigned to the backburner.
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During the one-hour meeting with members of the Bar Council, he explained the use of the ISA, and assured them that he had information which justified the use of detention without trial.
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The Bar welcomed the setting up of the Royal Commission on the Judiciary but hoped that the government would consider a commission to advise the PM on appointments to the Bench.
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In a statement on Friday, it also urged the government to reconsider its position in using the ISA against the five people, and hold back on making further arrests under the Act.
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The statement, from council president Ambiga Sreenevasan, called for the detainees to be either released or charged in a court of law immediately.
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It is clear that in the days and weeks ahead, the Abdullah administration will have its work cut out. It will have to make some structural changes to assure Malaysians that everyone has a place under the Malaysian sun. For a start, a mechanism to handle the removal and relocation of all places of worship would help.
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The administration will also have to speak the language of conciliation, persuade as many people as possible that it is committed to strengthening the institutions and building a better Malaysia.
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A tough task but Mr Abdullah probably believes that he has a better chance of success without the drumbeat of hate and racial strife in the background.

BY: Abdullah Osman-Today online
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(Abdullah Osman is a freelance writer based in Malaysia.)


Minorities and opposition united against the government

The last month has seen a crescendo of protests led by the Indian minority and opposition parties demanding equal opportunities and electoral reform. Authorities react with force while premier Badawi approves the implementation of the draconian Internal Security Act.

Malaysia’s opposition parties have come out in support of the Indian ethnic minority, which has launched a series of protests recently against the governments discriminating policies. Yesterday former vice premier Anwar Ibrahim demanded that the 5 Indian activists arrested on December 12 for their role in organising protests be allowed to appear before the courts to avoid a violation of their rights. M. Manoharan, R. Kengadharan, B. Ganabathi Rao, Vasanthan and lawyer P. Uthayakumar, are being held under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

ISA is an emergency law which has been in vigour since 1969, and is widely criticised by the International community. It allows for the unlimited detention of presumed criminals, torture and beatings and even sets out that they can be re-arrested after a court has ordered their release.

The 5 are leading members of Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force), the group which has become the main defender of the Hindu minority in the country. It was their initiative which saw over 30 thousand people – according to unofficial estimates - take to the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur November against racial discrimination which favours the majority Malay population.

The Indian community’s discontent is accompanied by the oppositions’ campaign for electoral reform ahead of the general election set for 2008. The authoritarian premier Abdullah Badawi is facing a deep governmental crises. Protests in recent months have rocked social classes, a crises refelected in the institutions and economy. Out of 27 million inhabitants, Muslim Malays count for 60% and dominate the political scene; 25% are of Chinese origin, and highly influential in the economy, while only 10% is represented by Indians, who take up the most undesirable jobs.

(From:AsiaNews.it)

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