Year in Review 2008: Fight for rights far from over

Edmund Bon Tai Soon’s comment piece published in theSun on 26 December 2008 in its ‘Year in Review 2008′. Reproduced here.

THIS year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). While we celebrate it, it is also a time to reflect on some milestones in respect of civil and political rights in the country this past year.

12th General Election

On March 8, the nation saw for the first time in 51 years, a significant rise in the number of opposition members of parliament to 82 seats out of 222 seats in the Dewan Rakyat. Five state governments fell to Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in the worst showing for the Barisan Nasional (BN) governing coalition.

Despite the historic win for the Opposition, allegations of corruption, discrepancies and phantom voters in the electoral system continue to be raised by Bersih, a coalition of opposition parties and NGOs. PR claims that if the problems had fairly been dealt with and the electoral system properly reformed, the Opposition would have taken the federal government.

Whether our electoral system is genuine, free and fair remains debatable. Until the EC comprehensively deals with the criticisms of the system, the perception that our national elections are unjust for being unduly weighed against the Opposition will persist.

Continuing state of emergency

It is a little-known fact that Malaysians still live under four emergency proclamations – the 1964 Proclamation as a result of the confrontation with Indonesia, the 1966 Sarawak Proclamation following a constitutional standoff there, the 1969 nationwide Proclamation after the May 13 riots and the 1977 Kelantan Proclamation following a political crisis there. The Malaysian Bar has called for the repeal of these proclamations.

As a result of the proclamations, a raft of legislation were enacted giving untrammelled powers to the executive to legalise preventive and arbitrary detention, regulate trade unions and evict urban settlers. These powers circumvent due process principles and the rule of law. They were meant solely to deal with specific conflict circumstances which no longer exist.

The government has justified in Parliament the continued use of its emergency powers to keep the peace. In the same answer, the government noted that the conflict situations which necessitated the four proclamations have ended.

Under international human rights law, states of emergency may only be declared in exceptional circumstances which threaten the life of a nation and to the extent strictly required by the situation. The fact that Malaysia is in what appears to be a permanent state of emergency is by itself a gross violation of international law.

It is incredulous that in 2008, peaceful Malaysia is still considered a nation wrecked by irrepressible conflict necessitating emergency rule.

Use of preventive detention laws

Preventive detention laws such as the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA), the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969 (EO) and the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985 (DDA) continue to be used against suspects. Recommendations for reform and/or repeal of the said laws by Suhakam, BN component parties, the Malaysian Bar and civil society have fallen on deaf ears.

Torture, inhuman and degrading treatment continue to be inflicted on detainees.

The recent story of former ISA detainee Sanjeev Kumar Krishnan is a case in point. His allegations of being forced to drink urine and being subjected to sexual acts have yet to be properly investigated. Sanjeev is now confined to a wheel-chair.

Even the usually conservative were enraged when the ISA was recently used against a blogger, a journalist and a member of parliament. All have since been released after a tough fight in the public sphere and in the courts.

Pressure by civil society groups appears to have been yielding results with a slow but continuing process of releases of ISA detainees. The home minister has said that as in March when he was appointed to the position, there were 75 detainees but the number today is 46. Many more are detained under the EO and DDA.

Freedom of speech curtailed

The right to freedom of speech and expression contained in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution yet again came under attack. Unjustifiable restrictions have found their way into our laws, curtailing individuals and the media from speaking out against the government and its policies.

The year saw the arrest of two bloggers – Raja Petra Kamaruddin (who writes on Malaysia-Today) and Syed Azidi Syed Aziz (who writes on Kickdefella). Threats to use sedition laws have continued to engender the climate of fear.

The print media have not been spared as well. Newspapers theSun, Sin Chew Daily and Suara Keadilan were asked to show cause in relation to reports on “sensitive issues” and for breaching printing guidelines – reminiscent of the infamous crackdown about 20 years ago.

Open and honest inter-faith dialogue is still an illusory ideal despite the prime minister’s call for greater understanding and discussion on matters of faith and ethnicity.

What appears to be most disconcerting is the perception that the authorities adopt selective prosecution in dealing with free speech issues. Under international rights norms, there is a clear prohibition of speech which incites and advocates racial or religious hatred that constitutes discrimination and hostility. Voices of the intolerant such as politician Datuk Ahmad Ismail who made disparaging remarks about the Chinese community are not met with more justifiable and serious action whereas political dissent and discussion not amounting to discrimination or hostility are.

Freedom of assembly crushed

Over the year, we saw various peaceful assemblies disrupted, and participants arrested. This is a continuation of the trend from 2007 and represents little hope for greater police co-operation with assembly organisers.

In January, a rally against the petrol price hike ended with many arrests. In October, Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) supporters were arrested when attempting to deliver a letter to the prime minister. In November, an anti-ISA candlelight vigil was broken up by force. A member of parliament, an assemblyman and a lay person were injured. Malaysiakini.com’s videographer was also arrested, and his video-camera confiscated and recording tampered with before being returned to him.

As I write, the Ride for Change bicycling campaign by grassroots movement, Jerit, is being blocked, and its cyclists arrested and harassed by the police at almost every leg of the nationwide tour. The campaign calls for a Minimum Wage Act, a repeal of the ISA, comfortable housing for the people, price control of goods, return of local council elections and a discontinuation of privatisation of basic amenities such as water, healthcare and education. These issues have been widely debated in the public domain, yet are still deemed “sensitive”.

Human rights defender released

Social activist Irene Fernandez finally won her case after a 13-year battle. However, her appeal against her conviction was not decided on the merits but rather on the basis that the trial court records were not complete for her appeal to be heard. The prosecution as such did not oppose her appeal.

While Irene’s case highlighted fundamental deficiencies in our judicial system necessitating much needed reform, her investigations and findings into the plight of migrant workers in detention camps continue to be ignored.

The government has failed to live up to the aspirations of civilised nations even after being elected to sit on the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Council. There are many more problems – not just in relation to civil and political rights – but with regard to the economic, social and cultural rights of our people. Of real concern is the widening income gap among our people highlighting the need to re-think our economic policies.

Awareness and education about human rights norms is far from satisfactory though there are signs that Malaysians are waking up from their slumber.

Edmund Bon is the chairperson of the Human Rights Committee, Bar Council. More information about the work of the Committee may be found at http://www.malaysianbar.org.my/human_rights/. The Committee was recently nominated for the Suaram Human Rights Award 2008.


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