Malaysian Government Nails Opponents with Sedition Act

The Sept. 2 decision by Malaysian authorities to charge University of Malaya law professor Azmi Sharom with sedition represents the latest development as the government seeks to hamstring its opponents using the law, critics say.

Eight top opposition figures have been charged with sedition in the past few weeks, with some of the charges relating to speeches made as long as two years ago. Azmi was told he would be charged over an article he wrote on Aug. 14 comparing a 2009 constitutional crisis in Perak state with the current impasse over replacing the chief minister in Selangor.

Students at the university were angered over the charges, calling them an attack on intellectual freedom. They planned to protest the move.

While Azmi is outspoken, he is not known to be an opposition figure or a party member, but he is the latest to face the sedition threat, apparently because something in the article he wrote offended the powerful. This despite Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s promise to do away with the sedition law in 2012. Najib also promised to do away with the country’s draconian Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, only to shepherd a bill through Parliament that retained many of the act’s provisions.

However, the feeling among legal sources in Kuala Lumpur is that an injured United Malays National Organization, dogged by a long list of corruption scandals and faced by an attack on Najib by the octogenarian former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has adopted the strategy to attempt to cripple the opposition as a political force as much as possible.

"Since the last general election, some UMNO Supreme Council members have said that since since the elections in 2013, the country has been floating around aimlessly," said a well-wired political analyst. "They suggested that Najib needs to show stronger leadership as Malays like leaders who are pahlawan or warriors. They said that unless the leadership showed it can be tough and firm in its leadership, the party would continue losing the Malay ground. Since then, all these actions have been initiated against the opposition."

Also, in coming weeks, the controversial reorganization of badly wounded Malaysian Airlines, whuich has racked up huge losses along with two crashes that have cost 500 lives, will be on the cards, along with the possible passage of a goods and services tax that is expected to be unpopular with the general public. In the meantime, a massive scandal is said to be bubbling under the 1MDB sovereign fund that Najib helped to create. Mahathir, in a private letter to Najib, demanded that the prime minister do something about the fund.

“Some people are genuinely frightened by this, they liken it to Operation Lalang [in which 106 NGO activists, opposition politicians, intellectuals, students, artists, scientists and others were jailed under the Internal Security Act in 1987],” said a prominent lawyer in Kuala Lumpur.

The spate of charges come as opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim awaits a decision from the Federal Court, the country’s highest tribunal, on his appeal of a decision by a lower court to reverse his January 2012 acquittal on charges of sodomy with a former aide. The trial, which began in 2010, resulted from charges brought by the government in 2008. A trial court exonerated him in 2012, saying the evidence was irrevocably tainted.

Sources close to Anwar say the opposition leader is dejected and fully expects to be imprisoned, despite the fact that independent observers said the evidence was badly flawed and that the case appeared to be trumped up to drive him from politics. Political leaders in the United States, Australia and other countries have condemned the case as politically motivated and damaging to the country’s reputation.

Both the ruling Barisan Nasional and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat are reeling from internal political crises that are causing widespread disgust and outrage in the wider population. The opposition crisis is largely due to Anwar’s attempts to replace Selangor Chief Minister Khalid Ibrahim and with his wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, over a variety of concerns. Khalid has refused to go for weeks. The mess has paralyzed the state government, with residents complaining that a wide range of services have been interrupted from garbage collection to doing something about a drought, one of the longest in recent Malaysian history,

The crisis marks a dramatic comedown from the opposition coalition’s performance in the May 2013 general election, in which it won the popular vote for the first time since 1969 but didn’t gain control of the parliament due to the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system and widespread gerrymandering.

At the same time, however, the Barisan Nasional, led by UMNO, is split over Mahathir’s attack on Najib, whom Mahathir helped to put into office after leading the charge to oust Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. It is questionable how much clout the 89-year-old Mahathir still has. Although UMNO chieftains have rallied around the prime minister, sources have told Asia Sentinel that party rebels are preparing to go after Najib’s allies with anonymous charges of corruption. UMNO’s annual general meeting, to be held later this year, is expected to be a focus of the squabble

Among those charged in the past two weeks are Rafizi Ramli, the vice president of Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, who was cited over remarks he made seven months ago alleging political attempts by radical Malay superiority groups to create racial and religious discord in Selangor. Another is N. Surendran, also from Parti Keadilan, who earlier this year criticized the court decision renewing the charges against Anwar. Others are Khalid Samad, a parliamentarian from PAS, the Islamic opposition party, who was accused of insulting the Sultan of Selangor, and R.S.N. Rayer of the opposition Democratic Action Party who was arrested for “insulting the feelings” of UMNO members in a speech in Penang in May.

Teresa Kok of the DAP, who made a video that allegedly insulted Malay women, and Tian Chua of Parti Keadilan also face charges. Former Perak MP Nizar Jamaluddin of PAS has been charged with criminal defamation for a statement he allegedly made two years ago.

Lawyers for Liberty executive director Eric Paulsen told Malaysian Insider that it would seem that one is only "safe if you keep silent or support the government.” He said it appeared as though Malaysia was a totalitarian state where no dissenting views were tolerated.

“The manner in which the Sedition Act has been misused to target all and sundry is unprecedented,” Paulsen said. "What we are witnessing now is Ops Lalang II and sedition is the new ISA, a catch all offence that the authorities can use with impunity against anyone who disagrees with them.”