Monday, July 4, 2011

Paranoia in Penang

By The Wall Street Journal

Wearing T-shirts with the likeness of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara may be a crime against good taste, but in markets across Asia they are freely available. So Malaysians were shocked over the weekend when police in Penang seized such shirts from opposition activists as evidence of a Communist plot to overthrow the monarchy.

In the past week, Malaysian police have detained at least 101 activists whose shirts were advertising a protest planned for July 9. Called Bersih 2.0 or the Walk for Democracy, this rally reprises a 2007 event that drew 30,000 protesters.

"Bersih" means clean in Malay, and the opposition political parties and NGOs that operate under its banner are demanding more honest elections. They are campaigning for measures to ensure that each person votes only once, the removal of fraudulent names from electoral rolls and an end to gerrymandering of constituencies to benefit the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO). All are reasonable requests that would boost political competition.

Instead of responding to the substance of these demands, UMNO has chosen to intimidate those who make them. On Monday, the government accused 30 detained opposition members, including a member of parliament, with promoting communism and "waging war against the king" (Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy). The rhetoric is a throwback to the days of the Communist insurgency in the 1950s. As one opposition party leader asked: Since when are T-shirts deemed as waging war?

These measures are intended to scare off the upcoming rally. On Wednesday, police raided a Bersih office and arrested seven people, and the country's home minister outlawed T-shirts with pro-Bersih messages. Malaysia's constitution guarantees freedom of assembly and speech, but the government is violating those freedoms with impunity. The smear campaign against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has also heated up recently.

The country is expected to announce elections soon and, in that light, these tactics betray a familiar paranoia.

In the 1990s, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad repressed the media and the opposition in the run-up to polls. Bersih 1.0 came before the 2008 general election, but then-Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi quelled it using teargas. Prime Minister Najib Razak was lauded for heading in the right direction on civil liberties when he assumed office in 2009. On present evidence, he is falling back on the party's familiar playbook.

Such tactics may backfire this time. UMNO, otherwise dominant since independence, has seen its vote share slip since 2008. Malaysians may conclude that a government that treats T-shirts as subversive cares more about retaining power than it does the country's well-being.

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