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MALAYSIA: Heightened politicisation of race and continued use of repressive laws

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suaram.jpgMalaysian human rights group SUARAM released its Overview Report on the situation of human rights in Malaysia in 2008 on 9 December, in conjunction with the International Human Rights Day, which also marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.

In its report, which covers major events pertaining to civil and political rights in Malaysia in 2008, SUARAM noted the failure of the Malaysian government to respond to calls for reforms, democratisation and greater respect of human rights, which contributed to the ruling-Barisan Nasional's biggest loss in Malaysian electoral history in the General Election in March.

According to SUARAM's report, despite the huge loss of popular support, the government still failed to respond to the popular call and continued to hold minimal regard for human rights.
"The government has obviously failed to learn from its debacle in the 12th General Election," said SUARAM Executive Director, Yap Swee Seng, during the release of the report.

According to SUARAM, after the huge loss of the BN in the General Election, instead of responding to the calls for reforms, democratisation and greater respect for human rights, the government reacted otherwise, using all means to hold on to power in the face of mounting criticisms and challenges to power.

SUARAM noted that the BN government once again resorted to blatantly racialised politics to create an environment which would justify the use of an array of repressive laws in response to the loss of confidence in the government of Barisan Nasional and the challenge mounted by the opposition after the General Election.

This, according to SUARAM, was illustrated in September, when the government once again invoked the spectre of racial tensions to justify its use of the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) against a blogger, a journalist, and a member of parliament – all of whom were picked up by the police in the period of 24 hours.

Despite strong calls to abolish or review the ISA, including by component parties of the BN coalition, the government continued to make arrests and detentions under the act throughout the year. 10 arrests were made under the ISA in 2008. 46 detainees remain under the ISA at the end of the year.

Despite the drop in the number of detainees at the end of the year as compared to previous years, the situation has not improved substantially, as the draconian act is still being used conveniently by the government, especially in times of political crisis, as was seen in September. Further, 16 of the current detainees have been detained for more than four years, of which 5 have been in detention since 2002.
Besides the ISA, the government also used various other laws and means to exert its control of power.

"Freedom of expression was most severely repressed by the government in 2008, targeting critics and political opposition for persecutions and prosecutions.
"For the first time, we saw bloggers being charged for sedition and criminal defamation, while there were clear selective persecutions on demonstrations throughout the year," Yap stressed.

Yap said that it is therefore of no surprise that Malaysia fell to an all-time low position of 132nd out of 195 countries in the world ranking of press freedom in 2008, dropping from 124th in 2007.
SUARAM also noted that most of the regressive trends observed in recent years persist.

These include the failure of the government to implement most of the more substantial recommendations made by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police (Royal Police Commission).

Other areas of grave concern highlighted in SUARAM's report are the eroding confidence towards the judiciary with no substantial reforms being taken despite the findings of the Commission of Enquiry on the "Lingam Tape" which confirmed the heavily compromised independence of the judiciary; and the non-recognition of the rights of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers which resulted in serious violations of their rights, particularly in mass arrests, deportations and inhuman conditions of detention.

Besides highlighting the regressive trends of 2008, SUARAM also noted with concern the imminent change in the top political leadership of the country in March 2009, which could see an attempt by the government to consolidate power after its huge loss in popular support recently. It warned that such attempts to consolidate power, has in the past, resulted in the heightened persecutions and prosecutions of dissidents and critics of the government.

SUARAM called on the government to implement genuine reforms in all policies and sectors in order to comply with the protection and promotion of human rights.

It urged the government to ensure institutional reforms such as the immediate establishment of the Independent Police Complaint and Misconduct Commission, the formation of an independent Judicial Appointment Commission, the amendments to make the Anti-Corruption Agency and the National Human Rights Commission as body independent from the executive and report directly to the Parliament.

It also urged the government to initiate policy reforms such as the ratification of the core international human rights treaties and bring the domestic laws in line with these international treaties, particularly the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention Against Torture and the Convention Against All Form of Racial Discrimination.

"The government should implement these genuine reforms if it is to win back the confidence and votes of the people. The people will not hesitate to vote out the Barisan Nasional government in the next election if it continues to perpetuate racial politics and repression of the rights of the people," warned Yap.

SUARAM's 2008 overview report can be downloaded here .