Human rights erosion in Malaysia: Stop the rot

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Women at a Free Maria march in 2016 - Women played a crucial role in bringing about political change

Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM), a coalition of 27 NGOs of diverse backgrounds, is sad to note that the past year has not seen any significant improvement in human rights in Malaysia.

As Malaysia joins the world in commemorating International Human Rights Day on 10 December, perhaps this is a good time to reflect on our own human rights record.

This year, Human Rights Day will kick off a year-long campaign to mark the upcoming 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was proclaimed on 10 December 1948.

Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia (GBM), a coalition of 27 NGOs of diverse backgrounds, is sad to note that the past year has not seen any significant improvement in human rights in Malaysia. To list all the violations of human rights in Malaysia in 2017 would probably take too much space; however, the experience of various GBM member organisations in the past year is enough to illustrate the sad state of human rights in Malaysia.

On 21 February 2017, Lena Hendry, a former programme coordinator of Pusat Komas, a member organisation of GBM, was charged with airing the documentary No Fire Zone in a Pusat Komas event in 2013 without the approval from Malaysian Censorship Board. She was found guilty under the Film Censorship Act 2002, and on 22 March 2017 she was sentenced to pay a fine of RM10,000. The documentary touches upon the alleged war crime against the Tamil community in the Sri Lankan civil war.

The case reflected the growing threat against freedom of expression in Malaysia. It also set a dangerous precedent that it is now unlawful for people to document and screen videos without sending their videos to the Film Censorship Board for approval.

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On 24 May 2017, three activists from Citizens Action Group on Enforced Disappearance (Caged) – Sevan Doraisamy, Thomas Fann and Rama Ramanathan – were questioned by the police following an order by the then Inspector General, Khalid Abu Bakar, through his Twitter posting. Caged is a coalition of NGOs that aims to monitor cases of enforced disappearance in Malaysia following the mysterious abductions of pastor Raymond Koh and Amri Che Mat, and the disappearance of pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth. Rama was representing Bersih 2.0 while Sevan and Thomas were respectively representing Suaram and Engage, which are GBM member organisations

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has formed a public inquiry into the allegations of enforced disappearances, which is still ongoing. These cases of suspected enforced disappearance form a worrying trend that has emerged in 2017 and add to the already bloated list of human rights’ concern in Malaysia.

On 16 August 2017, Ho Yock Lin, former president of the All Women’s Action Society (Awam), a GBM member organisation focusing on women’s rights, and Ivy Josiah, a women’s rights activist, were questioned by the police for their involvement in the “Free Maria” walk. The Free Maria on 23 November 2016 drew more than 500 women, who marched from Padang Merbok to the Parliament building, demanding that Maria Chin Abdullah, the chair of Bersih 2.0, be released from detention under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) for her role in the organising of the Bersih 5 rally.

The questioning, which was held nine months after the event, was another example of the assault on the freedom of assembly. It was ironic considering that the walk itself was intended as a protest against the police’s detention of Maria, which was itself another example of of an attack on the freedom of assembly as well as an example of the abuse of a law which provided for detention without trial.

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The Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), another GBM member organisation, has also become a victim of the narrowing space of human rights in Malaysia. In 2017, several books published or distributed by the organisation were banned by the Home Ministry under the Printing Presses and Publications Act. On 25 September 2017 Mustafa Akyol, a respected international scholar on Islam who was invited as a speaker for a series of talks on Islam organised by the IRF, was briefly detained and questioned by police and the religious authority, Jawi, for allegedly teaching Islam without official credentials. Dr Ahmad Farouk Musa, IRF chairman and director, was questioned by Jawi on 2 October 2017 under Section 43 of the Shariah Offences Act 1997 (Federal Territories) for allegedly abetting Mustafa Akyol.

Considering all these depressing developments, it is hard to be optimistic about the state of human rights in Malaysia for the year 2018 and beyond. However, we do not have the luxury of giving up or slowing down.

As the world marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 2018, and Malaysia is about to have its 14th general election, Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia urges all Malaysians to stop this rot by taking up the cause of human rights. We must stand firm and strive hard for a Malaysia that is united by human rights and human dignity, which should demonstrate these characteristics:

  • Freedom of thought, speech, assembly and association, and by extension religious, linguistic and cultural inclusion, protected from both state and private encroachment;
  • Governments chosen through free and fair elections, with effective mechanisms to curb any distortion of electoral mandate and under-representation of women and minorities;
  • Impartiality and integrity of the judiciary, the Attorney General’s Chambers, the bureaucracy, the police, the military and all other unelected public institutions;
  • Socio-economic inclusion and sustainable development to ensure everyone can live with basic needs fulfilled, equal opportunity to pursue their life goals, and dignity.
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Only in a Malaysia where everyone’s right as a human being is guaranteed can we have sustainable unity, prosperity and stability.

Zaid Kamaruddin is chair of Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia.

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