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ATimes: Kuala Lumpur clamps down on ISA protests
By Anil Netto

1/11/2001 5:15 pm Thu

Kuala Lumpur clamps down on ISA protests

By Anil Netto

KAMUNTING, Malaysia - They stood there outside the shops, some curious, others sullen-faced, as they stared at a phalanx of riot police in front of four red police trucks blocking the road leading to the Kamunting Detention Camp here in this town in Perak in northern Malaysia.

Some 500 onlookers milled about in Kamunting on Saturday, a couple of kilometers away from the camp, as representatives of the Abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA) Movement tried to hand over a protest memorandum to the camp authorities. The "rehabilitation" camp here holds some 80 Malaysians detained under the ISA, which allows indefinite detention without trial.

In the memorandum, they expressed concern over the health of the detainees held under the harsh security law - a few of whom were said to be suffering from migraine, blood in the urine, and high blood pressure - and the restrictions they face. Police then swooped down on the anti-ISA protest and 48 activists, onlookers and others nearby, including a journalist and two cameramen, were arrested. They were released later that day although it is still not clear whether they would be charged.

It was a strangely subdued, passive protest. There were no chants of reformasi, no banners, no placards, no political party or NGO emblems, except for a flag of the opposition National Justice Party (Keadilan), stuck on a tree trunk by the roadside.

The crowd, largely ethnic-Malay Muslims, stood stoically outside shops facing the roadblock. Police officers using loud-hailers then ordered them to disperse. Burly plainclothes police personnel, each with a thin pink cloth strip pinned to his shirt, then moved in to clear the area. Occasionally riot police jogged forward, prompting spectators to scatter. Several riot police scoured the compound of the Kamunting Mosque, looking for anyone who might have sought refuge there.

Some of the onlookers moved into the shops while others entered restaurants. Eventually three police trucks arrived, and one of them stopped outside a restaurant. A witness told IPS that police asked many of the patrons, most of them Muslim males attired in loose gowns and skullcaps or turbans, for their identity cards. Police then called out their names and herded them into the waiting truck. As the truck sped away, the detainees inside sang hymns with gusto.

The crowd of protesters this time was far smaller than the October crowd of about 2,000 for a similar anti-ISA protest. Last year, protesters were allowed to gather outside the camp's perimeter to read out statements before dispersing peacefully. Anti-ISA protests are usually held on or around October 27, to mark the day in 1987 when police launched a nationwide crackdown against dissent that led to the arrests of more than a hundred dissidents. Thus, many saw the arrests during the Saturday protest as an attempt to curb such public displays of dissent.

Earlier, on July 15, police arrested 41 people taking part in a road convoy to Kamunting to express solidarity with the detainees and their families. "The main reason is to frighten the public and to prevent them from showing their opposition to a draconian law," said Jeyakumar Devaraj, one of those arrested on Saturday. Jeyakumar said he had written twice to the district's police chief on behalf of the Abolish the ISA Movement, asking for a meeting to explore how they could cooperate with the police while exercising their right to freedom of assembly and expression. "The decision to arrest people and to block the whole gathering is a political action and an abuse of police power," he added.

Indeed, there is growing concern that governments are using the "war against terrorism" in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States to justify crackdowns on domestic dissent.

"All over the world, as an immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, human rights and civil liberties are in retreat and authoritarianism is on the ascendance," said six former ISA detainees from the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) in a statement. They warned that the authorities in Malaysia would be emboldened by an increasingly authoritarian atmosphere in the international scene to crack down even harder against legitimate dissent and the democratic opposition.

Home Minister Abdullah Badawi, who is also deputy premier, defended the use of the ISA, saying that the government would not tolerate any form of action that would undermine the nation's peace and stability. "What we have done is on the basis of what we feel is right for us to do," he maintained. "Any action that has been taken that can create a situation that threatens the peace and stability would be severely dealt with."

In April, the ISA was used against prominent reformasi activists, especially from Keadilan. More arrests followed from August, this time targeting alleged members of a so-called Malaysian Mujahideen/Militant Group (KMM), many of them local leaders or supporters of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS).

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in power for 20 years, was candid in justifying the need for the ISA, saying that the law is now widely acknowledged as an effective tool to combat terrorism. "To bring these terrorists through normal court procedures would have entailed adducing proper evidence which would have been difficult to obtain."

It is not surprising that many rights activists agree that the "war against terrorism" has set back the struggle for human rights in Malaysia several years.

Indeed, activists in Malaysia worry that the government will not have to look over its shoulders now to justify the use of the ISA and other repressive actions. Said P Ramakrishnan, president of the non-government social group Aliran, of Saturday's arrests: "The [ruling coalition] is determined to throttle whatever little democratic space that may be available to address a long-standing grievance of 41 years involving the abuse of the ISA."

(Inter Press Service)