Letter from Malaysia: Why the government attacked the January 26 protest

By S. Arutchelvan

On behalf of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) and members of the Movement of the Oppressed people (JERIT), I would like to thank all of you for your support, solidarity and urgent appeals which I believe did help in securing our early release and reduce intimidation of comrades in detention.

[On January 26, thousands of police were deployed to prevent a protest against price hikes outside the Petronas Twin Towers. More than 50 activists were arrested and taken away. In response, a snap international campaign to send protest messages was launched by the Australian Deomocratic Socialist Perspective and others -- Links editor.]

The support has been tremendous. There were continuous protests outside the detention centres, we had many volunteer lawyers and we put out an appeal for financial support to pay for the bail money, we got an extraordinary response and pledges amounting to RM60,000.

The last batch of us -- including myself, Dr. Nasir Hashim (PSM chairperson), M.Saraswathy (deputy chairperson) and 35 others -- were taken from the Pudu Jail and charged at the Kuala Lumpur Sessions Court and later released on bail at 6pm on January 28. We were released on a RM1000 bail each and a condition was imposed on each of us that we will not participate in future [protest] assemblies. If we breach the condition, our bail will be revoked and we will be put back in detention. This is the first time that such a condition has been set in the Malaysian courts; they have presumed those detained guilty even before our case is heard. We intend to challenge these conditions in the higher courts.

Immediately upon my release, in my public address to the media, I said that we will continue to hold assemblies and will not follow any conditions which restrict our liberties. This message was received by tremendous applause and slogans from the supporters. The PSM has also released a public statement affirming this position.

To give some analysis on what is happening here, let me present this brief overview, covering three areas:

1) The clampdown on public assembly;

2) The PROTES coalition;

3) The arrests, detentions and charges.

The clampdown on public assembly

On November 10 and 25 last year, there were two huge rallies –- both drawing tens of thousands of people to the streets. The Malaysian government tried all out to stop these assemblies. Among the actions taken by the state was putting warnings on TV and radio, asking people not to attend, [setting up] nationwide roadblocks to scare and intimidate the people, and many other measures. But it didn't prevent the people from coming to these assemblies.

Huge rallies follow the cycle of economic hardship. It creates objective conditions; it creates huge discontent, which is normally followed by crackdowns and the use of the ISA (Internal Security Act) to detain people without trial. This pattern is quite obvious. The last financial crisis resulted in a political crisis between [then Prime Minister Dr] Mahathir [Mohamad] and [his deputy PM] Anwar [Ibrahim], followed by the Reformasi movement and the crackdown after that. In Indonesia, the reformasi movement managed to overthrow Suharto but not the system.

Currently, we are facing such a situation as inflation has rocketed, prices of essential controlled items have gone up and the income disparity between the rich and poor has widened. Malaysia has the second largest income disparity in Asia after Papua New Guinea. There has also been increasing hardship caused by the many neoliberal policies adopted by the [Abdullah] Badawi government. Public utilities like water, electricity, education and transportation have been privatised or corporatised. There is also growing concern of further assaults on the public health system and on garbage collection.

While the government has addressed these hardships by increasing the wages of the 1 million public sector workers, as well as given them a cost of living allowance. The wage increases also resulted in further inflation as traders took the opportunity to increase prices, yet the majority 9 million private sector workers were denied a similar wage increase. The ruling party has failed to enact a minimum wage law in parliament, but several pro-boss laws to limit payment of wage arrears and backdated wages were implemented. There was also further restrictions on trade union activities.

All these issues, added to the issues of discrimination faced by the minority Malaysian Indian community, erupted and created a political crisis which the ruling party is trying to contain.

The state became extremely worried about these huge rallies, and went on an all-out attack on public assemblies. It started to prosecute those who participated in rallies. Daily advertisements [claiming] assemblies lead to violence were aired. Also, it used the state-controlled media to say that the majority of people were against public assemblies, [because] they are not good for business and the economy. Statistics were presented saying tourists are not coming and hotel reservations have dropped.

Between December 9 and 11, the government went on a rampage to further prove this point. It arrested lawyers for participating in a human rights march; and started to charge those who participated in the rallies of November 10 and 25 with [taking part in] illegal assemblies, and some for attempted murder. [More than 130 people were charged.]

The attorney general attended to these cases personally and requested that bail be not granted. On November 11, the government went on to arrest and detain another 26 people, including PSM leaders when the parliament house was sealed off by court order. This action to obtain a court order to restrict people from protesting at the parliament was also unprecedented.

This created an atmosphere of general fear among the public and the government went on challenging groups to fight them in the elections, but not in the streets. The government also announced that all rallies would be banned and the draconian ISA would be used against those who organise public rallies. A government-sponsored NGO numbering around a few hundred also presented a petition to the Prime Minister asking the government to take stern action against those organising public assemblies. On December 13, the government used the ISA against five Hindraf (Indian minority rights) leaders, with a warning that more arrests [would follow].

The PSM and its front organisation viewed this clampdown very seriously, because only when the masses go to the streets do they radicalise. The government want them to concentrate on elections, which the opposition cannot win due to manipulation and fraud.
In order to regain the confidence of the people, and in an act of defiance, PSM and JERIT led a demonstration on December 19 calling for the right of assembly to be protected by the Human Rights Commission. The [demonstration] also called for section 27 of the Police Act to be abolished. Under the Act, those intending to organise [a protest] assembly must obtain a police permit... Fifty-one organisations, including all opposition parties, participated in this rally. The PSM thought that it was important to give leadership and create confidence, especially when the state is being oppressive. Failure to keep up public pressure and to seize this opportunity, [would mean] we would have to wait for yet another cycle.

The PROTES coalition

The PROTES is a coalition, which was formed in 2006 to oppose a government fuel hike. It is mainly led by PAS (the Islamic Party) and the PSM. The PSM and PAS can be said as the only opposition parties that can mobilise people, as both these parties have a grassroots base as well as being cadre based.

The PSM agreed to work with PAS on a minimum program on this issue because the issues are class based and not religious based. Both parties do have their ideological differences, but have mutual respect on the work done they do with the people.

Very recently, the government said that it would have to increase fuel prices, failing which the country would go bankrupt. This argument is a farce because Malaysia is an oil-producing nation. The increase in oil prices will make the nation richer. The problem is, only PETRONAS (Malaysia's national petrol company) makes the profit; how the money is managed is kept secret and the people are told to pay more for petrol.

So the PSM and PAS leaders called for a public protest against the proposed fuel hike. We leafleted and circulated the news. Our call for a protest hit the sensitive nerve of the ruling party, which was trying hard to stop people from organising public rallies. The government also sent a circular to the major newspapers asking them to play down the issues of price hikes and inflation.

Once again, the police used the TV and the radio to ask people not to attend the assembly and said that those attending would be arrested at sight. On the eve of the proposed date of the rally, the police said that they had obtained a court order restraining five people and those associated with them from come within one kilometre of the venue of the protest -- the KLCC [Petronas Twin Towers]. I was one of the five mentioned in the order and the police came at around 10pm on the eve of the protest ... to serve me the notice, but they failed to locate me. The notices were also put up at various locations near the proposed protest site.

On the organisers' side, a letter signed by myself was sent to the police informing them of the rally and asking them to respect Article 10 of the Constitution, which calls for Freedom of Assembly. In response, the police chief said on TV that the protest was illegal. The state mobilised thousands of police to stop the peaceful rally.

We planned two points to gather -– one at the LRT [train] station, led by myself, while the second at the KLCC [Twin Towers] mosque, led by Dr Hatta, PAS national treasurer. These locations were not secret and the police surrounded both locations. Both these groups [did not manage to gather]. Most of the leaders were picked up ... based on the clothes and badges [they were wearing]. None were arrested for illegal assembly as the assemblies had not taken place.

I appeared at the LRT station and within minutes, the police surrounded me and arrested me. No reason was given for my arrest. PSM chairperson Dr Nasir and deputy chairperson M. Saraswathy then took lead and led a few hundred PSM and JERIT supporters (the biggest visible group) towards the KLCC. Many people joined them along the way. Another crowd, around a thousand people, gathered around the KLCC.

The PSM group was met by a huge police team, which blocked them. The PSM leaders who led the rally were arrested and many members sustained injuries as they were confronted by the police force. With the arrest of most of the key leaders, the second line of leaders then retreated to avoid arrest. Elsewhere, the police were also picking up many people -- those wearing badges and t-shirts with slogans -- at random. [Riot police] continued to chase the remaining PSM and JERIT supporters outside the vicinity of the KLCC area. Many of our members were injured ...

I was the first to be arrested, and was taken away in a police car to the Kuala Lumpur police headquarters. Soon truckloads of other activists were brought in. All together, 60 people were detained. At the police headquarters, we continued to argue with the police. After two hours, I was separated from the larger crowd of detainees and put into the Pudu Jail. The rest were questioned and were brought to the jail early the following morning. Many of those arrested lodged [complaints of] wrongful arrest and police brutality. A number of people were released, but [most] remained in detention.

Outside the police headquarters, a crowd started to gather and organised a vigil. They shouted slogans. Dozens of lawyers from the Bar Council were prevented from meeting those who had been detained. The riot police were once again used to disperse the crowd at around midnight.

The following morning, a large crowd started to gather outside Pudu Jail.

The police and the Public Prosecuting Officer then applied for a two-day remand period to facilitate investigation. Our lawyers fought hard, arguing that there was no reason for detention, as this is a straightforward case. My remand proceedings were the first and the hearing lasted more than an hour. The magistrate ruled that due to ``national security'' and public interest, and due to the increasing number of demonstrations, she had to remand us for two days. The magistrate's ruling was definitely a political statement ... The women detainees were also given a two days' remand, even though two of them were ill when detained... The reasons were the same, [but] with other trumped up accusations from the police...

The remand proceedings started around 3pm and went on until midnight. Dr Nasir Hashim, PSM chairperson, caused a stir when he represented himself. He told off the magistrate and staged a walkout -– without even waiting for her ruling. After that, another ten detainees, including key leader from PAS Dr Hatta and Tian Chua from the Justice Party, were released because they were arrested at a tea stall beyond the one-kilometre radius.

The following morning, the male detainees walked out of their cells and refused to go back. They made lots of noise. We sang the ``Internationale'' at the top of our voices and wrote the lyrics on the jail cell walls. Our women comrades also said that their Islamic party counterparts were very impressed with the ``Internationale'' and joined in. We were later taken to the court and charged. There was an additional charge for me. Our case will start in June 2008. Meanwhile, the judge has ruled that our bail will be revoked if we participate in another rally. That will be yet another test.

Overall though, the rally failed to achieve its target of 3000 people, yet it managed to attract half the numbers under very difficult circumstances and repression. The Petronas Twin Towers -- the symbol of Malaysian capitalism had to be protected by thousands of police. The protest illustared the frustration of the people at grassroots.

Elections will be called soon. The PSM is convinced that only a mass mobilisation of the people can ensure that the election system is reformed. Another [mass] rally is proposed for February 23.

Until then, goodbye, and once again thanks for the support and solidarity

[S.Arutchelvan is secretary general of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM -- Socialist Party of Malaysia). Visit http://parti-sosialis.org/ . This has been edited and abridged to assist readability.]