Despite the harsh action of the police at the 9 November vigil in PJ, the struggle to abolish the ISA will continue, writes Anil Netto.
It had been a night laced with drama in Petaling Jaya as a stand-off ensued between the rakyat seeking electoral reforms and the repeal of the ISA, on the one hand, and police, who were in a mood to crack down.
After having been chased away from the field near Amcorp Mall, the site of their usual vigils, the participants then entered the mall and gathered in the lobby as riot police lined up facing the entrance, glaring menacingly at them. Some among the crowd then went ‘shopping’ until about 9.30pm. They later dispersed but others adjourned to the PJ Civic Centre not far away for an impromptu gathering.
As they were singing the national anthem and about to disperse, riot police and plain-clothes officers marched into the crowd and arrested 23 people.
A few protesters complained they were roughed up or assaulted. “Two guys came over to grab one arm each and pushed me towards the Black Maria,’’ wrote MP Tony Pua in his blog. “I stated that I will walk, don’t be rough but they tore my shirt instead. I repeated my call and three other police officers came at me, one with the knees into my belly while another attempted to kick my shin.’’
“They then chucked me against the back of the Black Maria truck and shoved me up despite me stating that I can climb myself.’’
Most Malaysians were shocked to hear of the police action on the night of Sunday, 9 November, and the arrests of concerned individuals who had turned up to show their opposition to the ISA. During previous vigils, a Selangor state government representative had assured the crowd that they could use the field without any fear of action.
Who were these 23 people the authorities felt compelled to arrest: they included three elected representatives, a town councillor, media personnel, lawyers, activists and a Catholic priest. All of them, except for one who was wanted for a different case, were released the next morning and will have to wait and see if the authorities will press charges.
The show of force by the riot police came like a bolt out of the blue. For several weeks before that, peaceful vigils against the ISA had passed without any untoward incident when police stood at the sidelines and observed, while snapping pictures and filming.
Against a storm of criticism, police have defended their action. “We don’t take sides. Even if an NGO, or even government parties were to organise such a gathering without permit, we would have acted in the same way,” Selangor state chief police officer Khalid Abu Bakar was reported as saying.
The 9 November vigil in Petaling Jaya was joined by civil society activists belonging to the Bersih coalition, which is lobbying for electoral reforms and free and fair elections in Malaysia. The vigil fell on the eve of the first anniversary of the huge Bersih protest rally on the streets of Kuala Lumpur last November, which drew about 40,000 people.
That anniversary, coupled with the presence of Malaysia Today news-portal manager Raja Petra Kamarudin, the last of the three ISA detainees arrested in September, could have unnerved the authorities. Raja Petra’s articles on scandals in the corridors of power have attracted a huge following – but they have also landed him in hot soup. But on 7 November, a brave High Court judge, in a rare decision against the Home Minister’s power to detain anyone under the ISA, surprisingly freed him from the Kamunting detention camp, much to the delight of civil society activists.
The Abolish ISA candlelight vigils began in September, following the ISA arrests of Raja Petra, Tan Hoon Cheng and Teresa Kok.
An immediate public outcry led to the prompt release of Hoon Cheng. The public outcry was followed by six consecutive Friday night candlelight vigils in Penang. As those weekly vigils drew to a close, weekly Sunday vigils began in Petaling Jaya. Instead of the vigils gradually fizzling out, residents in Ipoh (Sundays) and Seremban (Fridays) joined in with weekly vigils of their own. And Penang is set to resume its vigil on 15 Nov. The perseverance and persistence of the crowds must have surprised everyone, including the participants themselves.
Each of these vigils typically draws 150 to 300 people. Holding lighted candles and clad in Abolish ISA T-shirts, they listen to speeches and poems, sing (and sometimes croak!) rousing songs of freedom and justice, and sign petitions. They don badges and quickly establish a remarkable camaraderie with like-minded strangers at the vigil. It’s a bonding of the human spirit and for an hour or so, barriers of class, ethnicity, and religion are lifted. Afterwards, eye-witnesses post pictures and accounts of these vigils on blogs and websites, reaching a larger audience.
It is interesting to observe the profile of the crowd. Many are middle-class urbanites who bring friends and family members along – partners, children and parents – a couple of them are even Datuks. Some of them may be regulars at the vigils, but others are new faces and even youths. They know they are taking a risk of sorts by sticking their necks out, but they find strength and solidarity in numbers. You have to be there to feel the ‘spirit’ – the sense of being part of a larger family, a Bangsa Malaysia in the making. It’s inspiring to see ordinary people standing up to reclaim their rights, peacefully, non-violently and persistently.
Several churches too have shed their inhibitions and held special services and vigils of their own for the release of ISA detainees and the repeal of the ISA. The main church of the northern region, the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Penang, held a special service, celebrated by about half a dozen priests and attended by 800 people.
By no stretch of the imagination, however, can it be said that the campaign against the ISA is largely a non-Malay/non-Muslim dominated movement. The Abolish ISA Movement (GMI), which comprises over 80 civil society groups, is spearheaded and coordinated by Jamaah Islah Malaysia, an Islamic reform group. The coordinators consult and engage with a range of NGO activists. One of the key activists of the GMI Family Support Group is the courageous Norlaila Othman, the wife of ISA detainee Mat Sah Mohd Satray, who has been detained without trial since 18 April 2002, more than six years. Pas has also played an important role in reaching out to the Malays about the evils of the ISA.
Significantly, when confronted by riot police around them on 9 November, the crowd found inspiration and solace in singing the national anthem. In a sense, they were pointing to a new form of patriotism – founded on the ideals of justice, freedom, and sister/brotherhood that cut across barriers, rather than the sort of shallow patriotism that British author Samuel Johnson once described.
Boswell writing in 1775 had this to say:
Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But let it be considered, that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self-interest.
We too should be careful to distinguish between real patriotism – the real love for the land and the thirst for justice among its inhabitants – and the false patriotism of scoundrels looking out for their own self-interest.
The vigils have had some impact. All three ISA detainees held in September have now been released. But another 65 detainees, many of whom are alleged to have links to regional terror groups – as yet unproven in a court of law – remain held without trial, several of them for close to seven years.
Turbulence in Umno
The drama on 9 November came at a time when Umno and other Barisan Nasional component parties are going through an uncertain leadership transition period after the 8 March general election saw them lose considerable ground to the opposition. Factional struggles are causing turbulence in several parties especially Umno, ahead of an intensely fought campaign for party elections scheduled for March.
Although Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has effectively handed over the Umno presidency without contest to his current deputy Najib, critics claim the premier’s hand was forced after the BN’s dismal performance in the general election. Three candidates are now vying to be the next Umno deputy president, taking over from Najib.
Mahathir’s son Mukhriz, meanwhile, is staking a strong claim to become the party’s next Youth chief. In the midst of all this, the party’s disciplinary committee has reportedly received 900 complaints of money politics (a euphemism for vote-buying) while factional disputes in party divisions have led to some bitterness. Even chairs have started flying on the deck, as the Umno ship rolls from side to side.
With the return of some of the Mahathir-inspired old guard, many fear that a return to the strong-arm methods and intolerance for dissent could be on the cards. The police action on Sunday may deter a few from participating in future vigils, but others are vowing to continue campaigning for the release of all ISA detainees and the repeal of the law.
Malaysians now have to choose between fear and truth. We may not live to see the results of our struggle but that should not concern us. We must act in the knowledge that injustice, violence and hatred in all its manifestations cannot prevail over compassion and justice. Armed with the knowledge that our cause is just, we can be confident that the ISA will one day be repealed and all detainees released, as sure as day follows night. It’s just a matter of time.
Punched and dragged
by Lau Weng San
“I was arrested by police in front of MBPJ. Hit twice on the face. The second punch hurt my lips and it’s bleeding, also a few scratches on my face. The riot police marched in to disperse the crowd without any warning.
As elected rep, I went forward to the first truck and would like to access the situation. I was scolded off in a very rude way and was chased away by them. I repeatedly told them that I merely wanted to know who were arrested. I was scolded off again and I told the plain-clothes (policeman) to be polite. Then I was dragged into the truck while punched twice on my face. The police officers applied some yellow lotion on my wounds to avoid the bleeding.
I managed to recognise the plain-clothes (policeman) who beat me. I will lodge a police report against the injuries. Ronnie and I saw him in the police station just now and Ronnie went forward to ‘interrogate’ him, asking him about his name. He refused to give but thank God I can recognise him…”
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