Malaysians Expect Big Protest Rally Monday

Tension in Malaysia is likely to intensify Monday with a planned protest rally in Kuala Lumpur over the jittery government’s arrest of three journalists Friday under the country’s colonial-era Internal Security Act.

The rally is expected to draw thousands of protesters angered by the use of the ISA, which allows for detention without trial. Upset over the arrests, the US State Department in Washington even summoned the Malaysian charge d’affaires to explain the action.

Arrested Friday were Raja Petra Kamaruddin, a prominent Internet journalist who edits the Web site Malaysia Today; Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, and blogger and human rights lawyer,and opposition Democratic Action Party member of parliament, Theresa Kok. Tan was later releaed.

On Thursday, three newspapers, including Sin Chew, were also threatened with closure.

Joel Simon, the executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, issued a statement strongly condemning the crackdown. “The Malaysian government has taken its repression of dissenting voices to a new level today. We call on the Malaysian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Raja Petra Kamaruddin and Tan Hoon Cheng. Malaysian newspapers should also be free to publish without threat of suspension,” Simon said.

Arresting the journalists is unlikely to stop the erosion of support undermining Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who faces growing chaos within the United Malays National Organization, the largest ethnic party in the ruling Barisan Nasional. Badawi’s most implacable foe inside UMNO, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, has announced that he is rejoining the party to join forces with party warhorse Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in an effort to pull down Badawi despite the fact that Mahathir and Razaleigh were rivals for power throughout much of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Last week, Badawi sent more than 40 legislators to Taiwan to escape the blandishments of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who had threatened to pull down the government on Sept. 16, Tuesday, the religiously significant midpoint of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. Anwar and his coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat, later said the September 16 date was only a target, and that while he has enough lawmakers ready to join the opposition, he will not do so now in the interest of maintaining national stability.

The detention of Tan, the Sin Chew reporter, may be the most telling of the arrests and the biggest indicator of Badawi’s weakness. Tan and Sin Chew, the country’s largest Chinese language paper, accurately reported inflammatory comments made by Ahmad Ismail, an UMNO stalwart in Penang State, at an August 25 political rally when he said the Chinese were simply “squatters” in Malaysia.

Despite near-universal concern that such remarks could ignite racial unrest, Ahmad was only lightly disciplined. A later rally in Penang grew ugly, with UMNO members ripping down a portrait of a Chinese leader at the rally and smashing it. The action and the participants’ refusal to apologize appear likely to drive Gerakan, a Chinese party and the fourth-biggest member of the ruling coalition, into the hands of the opposition.

Political analysts in Kuala Lumpur say, however, that if Badawi had played rough with Ahmad it could have touched off more dissension within UMNO; instead the reporter was arrested.

Raja Petra, a minor member of the Selangor royalty, which usually is enough to provide immunity from arrest, was taken from his home Friday, just a day after the government lifted a ban on Malaysia Today. Raja Petra was earlier sued for libel and accused of sedition. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar told The Star that Raja Petra was deemed a threat to security, peace and public order. The minister said that he would be detained for up to 60 days, subject to review and possible extension.

Opposition leaders and civil society groups, which have long criticized the ISA as undemocratic and prone to abuse by the government, condemned the arrest.

"Raja Petra's arrest claims two victims ‑ himself as the first, and freedom of expression as the second. His arrest only proves once again, under the UMNO/Barisan Nasional regime, there is no freedom after speech," Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, president of the People's Justice Party and Anwar's wife, said in a statement Friday.

Raja Petra’s “detention is unjust as it denies him his democratic right to defend himself,” Aliran, a leading non-governmental organization, said in a statement Friday. “He should have been charged in open court in relation to the earlier charges made against him under the Sedition Act. By resorting to the ISA, his innocence can no longer be proven. This is indeed undemocratic, unjust and un-Islamic,"

In addition, three newspapers received show-cause letters Thursday and could have their publishing licenses revoked. Publications Control and Al-Quran Texts Unit secretary Che Din Yusof told local media that The Sun, a free English-language daily, allegedly played-up "sensitive" issues; Sin Chew was cited for its reports on Ahmad Ismail and Suara Keadilan, the People's Justice Party's newsletter, was cited for misreporting that the national police chief was paralyzed after a heart surgery.