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Dec 14, 2007

Democracy in Malaysia

December 14, 2007

When Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took office in 2004, he was welcomed as a modernizer who would expand democratic freedoms in Malaysia. Yesterday, his government resurrected the Internal Security Act, a colonial-era law that gives the executive almost unlimited power to detain opponents. The move raises serious questions about Mr. Abdullah's commitment to democracy.

Malaysia is facing its biggest political crisis since 1998, when former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim led the Reformasi movement. Since November, around 30,000 people have rallied for electoral reform, more than 20,000 ethnic Indians have protested against economic discrimination, and lawyers have marched against judicial corruption. Smaller protests were held earlier this week.

Mr. Abdullah first responded defensively, calling on the protestors to stay at home. The police also denied every request for protest permits, under the guise of protecting public safety. (In Malaysia, even though the constitution protects the right to peaceable assembly, any group exceeding five people must obtain a permit to gather.)

When those measures didn't work, Mr. Abdullah adopted the tough tack of his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, by intimidating his political opposition. Yesterday, five Indian activists who participated in a largely peaceful Nov. 25 rally were detained under the Internal Security Act. "They can be held for two years for sedition and also for carrying out activities that threaten national security," Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharom told state news agency Bernama. He did not explain how a peaceful protest can "threaten national security."

Mr. Abdullah had been building up to this bombshell all week. On Sunday, a group of lawyers and activists -- including those key to organizing last month's big protests -- were arrested, then released. On Tuesday, several opposition political leaders were jailed. Some -- though not all -- are now out on bail. Some were not even charged, but the message was clear: Criticize the government in advance of the general election expected for early next year, or demand that the electoral process be cleaned up, and you can expect to end up in jail.

By wielding a tough hand, Mr. Abdullah is aggravating the situation. Malaysians don't enjoy the same freedom of speech that other democratic nations enjoy. The press is heavily influenced by government. So one of the few ways for opposition politicians and activists to air their grievances is to get out onto the streets. By denying that right, Mr. Abdullah is challenging the groups to organize bigger rallies.

There's no appetite in Malaysia for violent street protests like the ones the country suffered in 1969, when hundreds were killed in rioting between Malays and ethnic Chinese. But equally, in a mature democracy, there's no reason that Malaysians can't be trusted to have peaceable debates about their political future. Mr. Abdullah's handling of the next round of protests will say much about where Malaysia's democracy is headed. Given yesterday's move, the signs aren't good.


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