A spate of arrests of government critics in recent weeks – including that of a prominent Chinese opposition leader as he entered a state assembly – has sparked fears of a return to the hardline policies that were suspended after Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took power in 2004.
Abdullah is retiring and handing over to his deputy, Najib Razak, in March.
Critics say the leadership change signals the return of hardliners such as former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and is the real reason behind the crackdown.
“We fear with Abdullah’s departure and the return of hardliners like Dr Mahathir to prominence, political repression is back on a scale not seen in the last five years,” said opposition lawmaker M. Kulasegaran.
“The recent spate of arrests is just the beginning.”
On Tuesday in parliament, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim described Najib as a dictator like Dr Mahathir, who would not tolerate dissent and would use security powers to crack down on the political opposition.
On Sunday, police with batons charged a group of lawyers, opposition lawmakers and writers who were holding a candle-light vigil for victims of detention without trial.
More than 25 of the protesters were arrested, held overnight and questioned.
Lawyers acting for the protesters said the 25 were likely to be charged next week with taking part in an illegal assembly, a serious charge in Malaysia that is punishable by one year in jail. Any gathering of five or more people requires a police permit, which is often refused, forcing dissenters to risk arrest if they continue to protest.
Lawmakers involved in the vigil would be disqualified if they are found guilty.
Yesterday morning, police summoned four leaders of a Hindu protest movement for questioning. Two of the four were opposition lawmakers. They are also expected to be charged next week for being members of an illegal and unregistered organisation, one of their lawyers said.
“The trend now to use harsh force against normal people that was tolerated before is truly alarming,” said Ragunath Kesavan, deputy chairman of the Malaysian Bar Council. “Police even question lawyers who
made statements in court while defending their clients. This situation is stifling and unacceptable.”
Last month, a journalist, a blogger and an opposition lawmaker were arrested and held without trial. They were released after a public outcry.
The arrest on Wednesday of the prominent Chinese opposition leader has shocked the country. Police arrested Ronnie Liu as he entered the Selangor state assembly to take part in legislative proceedings.
Liu was questioned at a police station and released on bail three hours later. He is to be charged on Monday with obstructing government officials closing down a massage parlour in November last year.
“The arrest and charge are politically motivated,” Liu said. “They seem to be dredging up any excuses to nail us. I see a pattern of persecution in this.”
Liu is a state exco member and a prominent spokesman for equal rights. He has been perceived as a thorn in the side of authority since the March 8 general election that brought the opposition into power in five states.
But Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said police were free to act against any person breaking the law.
“It is a simple law-and-order issue, and everyone must respect the law,” he said.
Political analyst Wong Chin Huat said a big gap existed between people who understood they had rights and those in power who remained trapped in an authoritarian mindset.
“People are more savvy, technologically sophisticated and aware of their rights,” said Wong, a Monash University academic. “The people have evolved and matured, but the police haven’t.”
He said public protests would increase because people are fundamentally dissatisfied with issues of governance, accountability and the authoritarian manner by which the country is managed.
“Protests would lessen if these core issues are resolved,” he said. – South China Morning Post