Malaysian Arrests Are a Puzzle

The arrest Sunday by Malaysian security forces of a Socialist Party member of parliament and 30 others for allegedly intending to wage war against the country’s Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king, appears to be a throwback to 50 years ago when Communists still thronged the country’s jungles.

The arrest has opposition party members scratching their heads in confusion and attempting to discern what actually happened at a police checkpoint in Penang, where police said the party members had been found with subversive materials instigating an overthrow of the government.

Opposition figures said the 30 were on a campaign swing in the north of the country to seek to generate support for a bigger rally on July 9 that has police – and the ruling Barisan Nasional – much more clearly worried. Sources within the United Malays National Organization, the country’s biggest ethnic political party and the leader of the ruling Barisan Nasional, say that rally, by an organization called Bersih, or the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, an umbrella group encompassing 64 civil-society groups, has been hijacked by Pakatan Rakyat, the three-party opposition coalition made up principally of Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

The Bersih rally’s organizers say they are not connected to any political parties. Although the July 9 rally has been declared illegal by the police, the organizers, headed by Ambiga Sreenevasan, the former president of the Bar Council, say they plan to march through the streets of Kuala Lumpur to deliver a petition to the Agong, whom Parti Sosialis supposedly wants to overthrow.

Adding to police concerns, the Malay nationalist NGO Perkasa, led by firebrand Ibrahim Ali, and the youth division of UMNO say they will hold counter-rallies, increasing the possibility of violent confrontation. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has said that he wouldn’t rule out using the country’s strict Internal Security Act, which allows in effect for indefinite detention, on the organizers of the Bersih rally, but maintained that other laws will be used for now.

Indeed, the security establishment has considerable reason for concern even without the counter-rallies. A massive rally in Kuala Lumpur in November 2007 by led by Bersih brought 40,000 people to the streets in one of the biggest anti-government rallies Malaysia had seen to that point. It was a harbinger of the March, 2008 vote that cost the Barisan Nasional its two-thirds lock on Parliament and the leadership of five states.

That rally turned central Kuala Lumpur into chaos as baton-wielding riot police used water cannon and tear gas to try and thwart an attempt by tens of thousands of marchers to deliver a petition to Malaysia’s king, asking for royal intervention in delivering electoral reform.

As the current Bersih rally has become closer to reality, the government has grown more concerned, warning that any violence would be met with force.

“The Bersih marches have been hijacked by opposition parties ahead of pending national elections in a bid to cause unrest while clamoring for electoral reform despite the elections that yielded huge gains for the opposition,” said a lawyer close to Umno. “Furthermore, elements of the outlawed communist Party of Malaya have reared their ugly head with the tacit backing from the DAP and the Bar Council, which is widely seen as engaging the ruling Umno Government to dilute its Malay privileges and national identity that places Islam as its official religion. How else to explain the arrests of 30 Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) activists in Penang late Saturday, apparently under section 122 of the Penal Code which arraigns rebellion against the king?”

The Penang deputy police chief, Abdul Rahim Jaafar said police seized 28 T-shirts, eight of which bore pictures of figures such as the long-dead Argentine revolutionary figure Che Guevara, from the 30 Parti Sosialis members. As a flock of critics pointed out, the Che T-shirts can be bought all over the night markets of Kuala Lumpur and Penang.

Although the Communists were defeated in 1960, the insurgency dragged on in the northern jungles on the Thai border until 1989, almost unnoticed by the bulk of Malaysians, who had got about the business of turning their country into a capitalist, exporting powerhouse that made Communism basically irrelevant. With the insurgency over for the past 22 years, the Communist Party remains outlawed and the party’s elderly longtime leader, Chin Peng, remains outside the country despite a plea to be allowed to come back so that he could die with his family.

Opposition figures including the DAP’s Lim Kit Siang ridiculed the arrests, saying on his blog that they were more an indication over the government’s “fret and fever” over the planned July 9 march that “has driven elements of our security establishment nuts.”

“The arrest and remand for seven days of 30 individuals (including two juveniles in their teens), apparently for having in their possession certain paraphernalia including T-shirts with images of former communist leaders, for waging war against the King is a reflection of such a clampdown,” he told the news website Malaysian Insider.

“By analogy, if one were to be at home wearing a Che Guevara (the Marxist revolutionary) T-shirt listening to a song attacking the institution of royalty by either The Smiths or The Sex Pistols, one faces a very real likelihood of being investigated for waging war against the King. This surely cannot be.”

“The Communist Party is an outlawed political organisation. It is unlawful to display and promote communist elements,” Abdul Rahim, the police official, told reporters. Among other things, he said, some of the Ts-shirts bore the emblem of what looked like the Barisan Nasional logo being cut with a pair of scissors, and the words Anti-Capitalism and Udahlah tu.. Bersaralah (That's enough, retire).

Other items confiscated included copies of the Sosialis Party organ in various languages along with 600 pamphlets advertising the Bersih rally. Some, Abdul Rahim said, contained “seditious content.”

Most of those arrested have been ordered held for seven days.