Malaysia's Rulers Want Lese Majeste Law

Apparently unfazed by the pickle that Thailand has got itself into with its stiff laws against insulting the royalty, at least one of Malaysia's royal families say they will ask the country's Conference of Rulers to seek the restoration of powers and protections former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad took away from them in the 1990s.

Thailand' s government has come under increasing international criticism for using the so-called lese majeste laws against the press and opposition figures. Nonetheless, according to local media, the Kedah Royal Household Association will ask the Conference of Rulers to seek the restoration of immunity to ensure that "certain parties" would not "belittle the Malay rulers who are the pillars and protectors of the strength of the Malays."

Over the past two months, the United Malays National Organization has been manufacturing a crisis over alleged insults to Raja Azlan Shah, the Sultan of Perak, whom the opposition wants to sue over his decision to name an UMNO chief minister in the state after three lawmakers aligned with the Pakatan Rakyat, the national opposition coalition, quit and reduced the Perak legislature to a 28-28 tie.

The opposition, which won the statehouse in national elections a year ago, refused to give up power. Karpal Singh, an Indian lawyer and national chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, announced he would sue the sultan for what the DAP regarded as an illegal action.

That has kicked off an inflated political crisis in which more than 100 UMNO members filed police reports charging Karpal with insulting the sultan – although Mahathir in a February 14, 1993 speech asked that the parliament strip the sultans of their immunity under the law, accusing them of giving away parts of the country to the British, oppressing the people, breaking civil and criminal laws, misusing the money and property of the government and pressuring government officials. The measure specifically included a provision to allow commoners to criticize the Sultans, even the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king without fear of the Sedition Act other than questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy itself. It was passed overwhelmingly by the parliament, apparently without outcry over Dr Mahathir's tough treatment of the country's nine monarchs.

Mahathir's law appears to have been largely forgotten by UMNO members, who are seeking to use insults against the sultans as a cudgel to whack the opposition, but to prove their own loyalty to the Malay cause as the ethnic political party readies itself for internal April elections. How long this will continue is questionable. The ruling coalition probably has little interest in actually giving the sultans back the powers they enjoyed until Mahathir took them away. The UMNO district elections scheduled for 24 to 28 March will see 269 candidates vying for various posts in the Supreme Council and the three wings in the party.

The job of president of the party has already been taken by Najib Tun Razak, despite the grwoing controversies over corruption allegations, and lately strong-arm tactics in wooing away opposition members. However, lesser party positions are up for grabs with a large number of young reformers seeking power at the grassroots level. Swearing undying loyalty to the Malay cause and the sultans apparently is felicitous politics for everybody. However, once the intraparty smoke fades, the sultans are likely to find themselves back on UMNO's back burner.

Nonetheless, Tengku Zainol Rashid Tengku Yahya, head of the Kedah family association, told local reporters the request to reverse the Mahathir laws would be made in Kuala Lumpur "soon" by 250 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to express loyalty to the Malay rulers.

"If immunity is restored, the issue of mocking the Malay rulers will probably not arise," he told reporters.

Perhaps the sultans should send a scouting party to Thailand, just over the Kedah border , to see what effect lese majeste laws have. So far, Thailand has shut down more than 4,000 websites deemed to be critical of the royal family, which is considerably more revered in Thailand than Malaysia's sultans, who until the latest blowup had been famous for persuading local governments to take over debts from failed business enterprises, bailing them out of massive debts incurred in London's casinos, and occasionally turning a blind eye to physical violence against the populace.

At least 11 people remain in prison in Thailand for insults against the royalty as slight as not bothering to stand up for the royal anthem in movie theatres or making sarcastic remarks on the internet. One would-be Australian author was jailed for three years, although later pardoned by the king, for including what appeared to be a wholly accurate description of Thailand's crown prince in a a2006 novel that sold six copies. The latest bust was last Friday, when when two van-loads of police descended on the offices of Prachatai, a leading independent Thai-language website in Bankgkok, to arrest Chiranut Prempreecha, the woman who founded the website and serves as its coordinator. Chiranut was later taken to Bangkok's Payatai Police Station for questioning, as red-shirted protesters thronged the area, and charged with carrying Internet content on Prachatai that threatens national security.

The use of lese majeste laws against Thai citizens has done little more than earn the government widespread criticism for using the laws for political purposes rather than protecting the king. If anything, the resulting controversy is cutting even more into the country's reverence for its long-serving monarch. Reporters Without Borders, the international press protection organization, called it "disappointing for a country that has in many ways been a model for press freedom."

The Malaysian authorities have in particular gone after Raja Petra Kamaruddin, the editor of Malasia's most popular Internet site, Malaysia Today, who has indefatigably accused the government and particularly Najib government of corruption and worse. He was arrested last year and charged with sedition and criminal libel and was detained under the Internal Security Act, which in effect allows for indefinite detention without habeas corpus. In February, they also went after Asia Sentinel correspondent Yoong Yui Foong, who writes under the name Jed Yoong, for what were deemed seditious comments against the sultans in her blog, http://jedyoong.com.

In a description of what had happened to her, Yoong said she had been called into the Bukit Aman Commerical Crime Department's Cyber and Multimedia Crime Investigation Unit on February 23.

"Under tremendous pressure, with my hand phone taken away from me, facing two officers and one or two that came in and out, I felt I had no choice but to give and sign a statement against my wishes in order to ensure my safety. (One official) at many points refused to allow me to give the answers that I wanted to give and changed my statement many times to fit his preferred answers. I was also not allowed to see the police report and had no idea why I was being interrogated.

At 10 that night, she said, four police accompanied her to her family home and seized her computers under the Sedition Act. They drew floor plans of the house, took photos, recorded videos and confiscated her laptop, its power cable, a desktop CPU, a router and a modem.

"I feel that I am being set up by the police and my rights have been violated as I've not been shown the police report, my statement was taken from me under conditions in which I feared for my safety, items were seized from my house and I've not been advised by the police to get legal representation," she said. She also lost her cellphone.