On the world stage, Prime Minister Najib Razak promotes himself as the leader of a Global Movement of Moderates espousing the rhetoric of ‘universal principles of justice, excellence and equilibrium’.
However, faced with domestic pressure for progressive democratic change and criticism of Malaysia’s human rights abuses, the true nature of Najib’s ‘justice’ is highlighted by violence against peaceful protesters, human rights activists and defenders.
In July 2011, in the aftermath of Bersih 2.0 and the Malaysian government’s use of excessive force to disperse peaceful protesters and the arrest of nearly 1,700 people, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression made compelling appeals about the Malaysian government’s use of excessive force and crackdown on peaceful protesters.
At the time, Mr La Rue noted, “Actions taken by the authorities prior to and during the rally unduly restricted the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.”
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It has long been Malaysia’s legislative framework, which has empowered the Malaysian police to act with impunity. Unsur-prisingly therefore, the Malaysian government responded with a programme of legislation, which, although internationally acclaimed as ‘reform’, in effect further restricted freedom of assembly, association and expression. In December 2011, after only one day of debate, the Senate passed a highly restrictive Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA). Contrary to its euphemistic title, the bill imposes far greater limitations on the rights to freedom of assembly and association. Sweeping restrictions ban street protests (‘assemblies in motion or processions’), prohibit non-citizens and citizens under15 years of age from engaging in peaceful assembly, prohibit citizens below the age of 21 from organising public assemblies, restricts access of the media to public gatherings and imposes excessive fines for non-compliance with the PAA.
A group of United Nations independent experts warned that this was likely to “arbitrarily and disproportionately restrict the right to assemble peacefully”. Mr Kiai further criticised the fact that “neither the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), nor civil society was meaningfully consulted in the drafting of this Bill.”
Similarly, on 17 April 2012, the Malaysian parliament’s lower house hurriedly approved the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SO(SM)A), only seven days after it was first tabled and without amendments or consultation with civil society. Although it replaces the much-criticised Internal Security Act (ISA), which sanctioned indefinite detention without charge/trial, the SO(SM)A falls well below international human rights standards. Combined with amendments to the Penal Code, its provisions restrict a range of fundamental rights, for example, individuals suspected of vaguely defined security offences could be detained for up to 28 days without judicial charge or access to court. The Act also grants the police significant discretionary powers to detain suspects incommunicado for 48 hours and to intercept any electronic communication without judicial oversight. Even after release, an electronic monitoring device may be attached to that person by an Order of Court under Clauses 4(6) and 7(1).’
Furthermore, media and censorship legislation seriously impede freedom of expression in Malaysia. Cosmetic amendments made to the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 (PPPA) ensure that the government controls the permits of all newspapers, printing presses and publications. The frequent use of the Sedition Act 1948 to ‘muzzle’ criticism or opposition voices further undermines the right to freedom of expression.
This cocktail of legislation effectively serves to silence human rights defenders on the ‘wrong’ side of the ruling coalition. It also ‘legitimises’ endemic police brutality. Dissidents are criminalised and the police can mete out extra-judicial punishments with impunity.
The nexus between legislation aimed at restricting civil liberties and police brutality is starkly illustrated by recent events, as follows:
Bersih 3.0 (Coalition of Clean and Fair Elections)
On 28 April 2012, the world witnessed the biggest public demonstration in Malaysian history, whereby an estimated 250,000 people took to the streets to demand electoral reform. Solidarity protests by overseas Malaysians also took place peacefully in 85 cities around the world.
In the days before the rally, a court order declared Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) a ‘no-go-zone’. It was barricaded with razor wire and by police. As peaceful protesters approached the square, the police and Federal Reserve Unit opened fire with tear gas and chemical laced water cannons, in an attempt to ‘kettle’ them. There is overwhelming evidence that, contrary to international standards, tear gas canisters were fired directly at individual protesters. Over 300 people were arrested. The Malaysian Bar Association and Suaram received several hundred reports of police brutality and unprovoked attacks against protesters.
The Malaysian Bar Association concluded that: the police used indiscriminate, disproportionate and excessive force without provocation or cause; police brutality was more widespread than at the Bersih 2.0 rally in July 2011; there was a concerted effort by the police to prevent and stop any recording of their actions and conduct; police fired tear gas directly at the crowd and their firing pattern was to box in the participants rather than allowing them to disperse quickly; and that police personnel were not wearing and displaying their police identification numbers and names on their uniform. There are many other points worthy of note in the Malaysian Bar Association’s report (which the Malaysian government and government-sponsored media has actively sought to discredit), but we refer you specifically to the documented evidence of police brutality, which is also available on YouTube.
The scale of the police violence and brutality suggests that there was direct or tacit ‘permission’ given to police officers to act without restraint. This was not one or two rogue officers or ‘bad apples’, there is overwhelming evidence that police officers had removed all identification numbers from their uniforms and, moreover, that their conduct demonstrated that they were confident that they acted with impunity.
It is also evident that the police focused their violent attacks on local and foreign journalists reporting from the event including beatings and the destruction and confiscation of camera/recording equipment.
Malaysian online newspaper Malaysiakini reported injuries sustained by local journalists which included head wounds and broken ribs as a result of police brutality. The government-sponsored news channel, Astro, censored BBC and Al Jazeera news coverage to show the Bersih 3.0 rally in a prejudicial light and to cut out scenes of police violence.
The plight of Malaysian human rights defenders
The Malaysian government’s complicity in the sustained harassment, threats and arrests of Malaysian human rights defenders is evident.
On 22 May 2012, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR); Azmin Ali, PKR deputy president; and Badrul Hisham Shaharin, a PKR activist, appeared in court charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 for participating in the Bersih 3.0 rally and engaging in a street protest.
It is evident that the Malaysian government is using what happened at the Bersih 3.0 protest as a pretext to prosecute political opposition leaders. The timing is telling: if found guilty, criminal prosecution ahead of an imminent General Election will render these opposition leaders/activists ineligible to be elected to parliament.
Further, the Malaysian government has pointedly failed to act against sustained threats against Ambiga Sreenevasan, co-chair of the civil society movement which organised the Bersih 3.0 rally. She has been publicly vilified, her effigy has been burnt and there have been calls to strip her of her citizenship.
On 23 May 2012, the Malaysian government initiated a civil suit against Ambiga and nine other Bersih 3.0 steering committee members for damages allegedly caused during the Bersih rally, including two water cannon trucks.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch states, “These charges, and the actions by police at the Bersih rally, don’t inspire confidence that the Malaysian government is committed to protecting basic free expression rights.”
The rights of Malaysians to exercise any freedom of expression and assembly are being violated. Aliran calls upon the United Nations:
1. To condemn immediately the unacceptable police violence and human rights violations currently taking place in Malaysia
2. To call on the Malaysian government:
- To immediately stop the intimidation and harassment of democracy activists and human rights defenders by the police and other parties; and
- To allow UN Special Rapporteurs to visit Malaysia to carry out an independent inquiry and that the Malaysian government fully cooperate with them and implement their recommendations in consultation with civil society; and
- To implement meaningful electoral reform and invite independent international observers to observe the 13th General election to ensure that they are clean, fair and free
3. To review Malaysia’s position as a member of the Human Rights Council and expel them from the council should they continue to breach international human rights standards, particularly in relation to freedom of speech, assembly and state-sponsored violence.
Aliran submitted the above statement in June 2012 for the 20th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Aliran was represented in Geneva by Maria Chin Abdullah.