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Time: Malaysia's political war claims an innocent victim [ISA]
By Simon Elegant

5/9/2001 7:56 am Wed column/0,9754,173567,00.html

Dispatches: Cracking the Whip

Malaysia's political war claims an innocent victim


Tuesday, September 4, 2001

It's hard not to like Kairul: an A-student with a passion for helping underprivileged children, he's also a good-looking young man with an affable nature. He's normally like that, anyway. Today his face is slack: the skin under his eyes gouged dark with exhaustion. He smokes one Indonesian clove cigarette after another, hardly aware of what he is doing, his eyes darting around constantly like a trapped animal. His hands shake a little. He says he can't sleep at night and has nightmares when he dozes off during the day.

We're sitting in a coffee shop in Kuala Lumpur on a recent afternoon, and every time someone sits down, Kairul regards them with a mixture of suspicion and anger, particularly the middle-aged males with short haircuts. "I feel like they are watching me all the time," he explains. "The police said to me, 'Don't forget, we'll know whatever you do.'"

His anxiety is understandable: Kairul was recently released after several weeks of detention under the Internal Security Act. The act allows permanent jailing without trial -- or anything else, such as books, pen and paper and visits from family, if your jailers don't feel like it. His crime? It was most likely protesting against the ISA that finally got him hauled in.

Kairul, a 22-year-old studying electrical engineering, didn't really do anything much beyond running a tuition center for poor children, and questioning government policies on everything from the ISA to bailouts for cronies. No great sin, you might say. And you'd be right. But Kairul is another innocent casualty in Malaysia's ongoing political battle of wills that pits long-serving Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad against his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was arrested and jailed three years ago this month. He is now serving out a 15-year sentence after being convicted of corruption and s###my in two highly controversial trials that left a sour taste in the mouths of many Malaysians.

The political war waxes and wanes. Street demonstrations, once common, are now rare. But the anger with the Prime Minister remains, smoldering under the surface calm, and the government has cracked the whip in recent months, arresting opposition politicians, alleged Islamic terrorists, and two student leaders, one of whom was Kairul. But Kairul isn't a politician and doesn't want to be. That's why he was so shocked to be arrested. He should have known, though, from the Prime Minister's thundering speeches denouncing Kairul's fellow Malay students (the Muslim Malays make up about 60% of the local population; Chinese, Indians and tribal groups account for the rest) as lazy ne'er-do-wells, more interested in street demonstrations than studying.

The police said the same thing to Kairul during his interrogation sessions, much to his bemusement. "I told them the level of militancy among students is zero. Most Malaysian students are completely uninterested in anything except studying and graduating and getting a good job."

It's been a week since Kairul was released and he's still feeling pretty rough. But what happened to him while he was detained -- seven hours of interrogation a day by two different teams, solitary confinement in a two-by-four meter cell in which the light was always on, the uncertainty about when, or if, he was going to be released -- hasn't changed him, he says. "It actually made my ideas, my principles stronger." Until the next time.

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