Malaysian Police Continue Their Crackdown

Hadi Awang and Anwar Ibrahim at the Bersih Rally (Nov. 10, 2007)

In a clear sign that the government of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is fed up with continuing protest, immigration officials detained de facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim at the country’s Subang Jaya Airport Tuesday before releasing him, and arrested at least 12 opposition leaders who attempted to protest at the Dewan Rakyart, or Parliament.

As has happened with increasing frequency in Kuala Lumpur, police Tuesday attempted to block protesters from reaching the parliament building, once again paralyzing traffic across the city. Officials stood by with water cannons but did not use them. Five opposition protesters got into the parliament building by riding through a police cordon in the cars of elected opposition figures.

Anwar, who was informed by immigration officials that he had been placed on a watch list, was freed after about half an hour. The continuing actions against opposition figures constitute the biggest crackdown since the one time deputy prime minister was fired in 1998 by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. After his firing, Anwar drew as many as 100,000 people to rallies in Kuala Lumpur and other cities before being arrested. He later spent more than five years in prison on charges that critics and human rights groups said were trumped up.

Anwar called the airport detention "just a clear harassment," telling reporters that "It's a desperate attempt to harass and intimidate the public and deflect the attention from major issues of corruption among (United Malays National Organisation) leaders and the judiciary."

The government appeared to be ignoring a call by the US Department of State in Washington, DC to allow freedom of assembly and expression of views in Malaysia.

"We have repeatedly raised with Malaysian authorities our belief that citizens of any country should be allowed to peacefully assemble and express their views," department spokeswoman Nancy Beck told the AFP wire service. “We also stated in our annual human rights report our belief that the Malaysian government places significant restrictions on the right to assemble peacefully," she said. Opposition politicians and local and international human rights organizations have repeatedly condemned the crackdown.

The protests are a growing test of strength for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who came to office following Mahathir in 2003 as a reformer but is increasingly seen as out of touch and unable to control the situation. He has repeatedly warned that street demonstrations would not be tolerated, only to have the protests take place anyway. As many as 30,000 people marched in defiance of a ban on November 10 to present a petition on election grievances to the palace of Malaysia’s hereditary king. On Nov. 25, a protest by as many as another 30,000 ethnic Indians turned violent, with protesters battling police with motorcycle helmets. One officer was injured. Subsequently the leaders of the march were charged with sedition and attempted murder.

In a speech Monday organized by Khazana Nasional, the government investment arm, Abdullah Badawi sought to address charges that he is weak. “I can be nice,” he told the 700-odd political and corporate leaders and others. “Being nice is your character and you cannot change. But being nice does not mean one is weak."

The prime minister, who also serves as Internal Security Minister, also repeated that he is ready to resort to the country’s harsh Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial indefinitely, saying he would not "feel guilty or sad" if he is forced to sign detention orders if the reasons are justified.

In the growing crackdown, authorities Monday filed three separate legal actions against organizers of the protests that paralyzed Kuala Lumpur in November and threw a lawyer in jail overnight for displaying protests signs at the headquarters of the Malaysian Bar Council on Sunday.

Among the leaders arrested for taking part in the Tuesday rally was Tian Chua, a senior official of Parti Keadilan, which Anwar in effect heads despite the fact that his imprisonment bars him from being involved in politics until next year.

Tian was arrested after the car he was in drove through a police cordon in an attempt to hand a memorandum to the Speaker of the Assembly opposing plans to amend the constitution to enable the current elections commission chief to continue serving for another year.

On Monday, eight people, including two opposition party leaders, were arrested for taking part in a banned Nov. 10 rally in Kuala Lumpur. Later Monday, police issued a restraining order to stop the electoral reform group Bersih from today’s gathering.