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Aliran: ISA - Refuge Of The Incompetent
By Dr Johan Saravanamuttu

16/6/2001 10:28 pm Sat

[Dengan menggunakan ISA - kerajaan sebenarnya sudahpun tertewas untuk menghadapi reformasi di dalam medan pertarungan secara anak jantan (gentleman). Dengan menangkap tanpa bukti jelaslah kerajaan hanya mahu mengaibkan lawan secara 'discredit' melalui satu fiksyen khayalan untuk mengaibkan lawan dengan harapan reformasi akan dapat dilemahkan serta ramai akan menjadi takut untuk ke hadapan.

Walaupun begitu reformasi bukannya milik satu dua orang. Malah ramai yang menyertainya adalah golongan muda yang bilangannya tidak pula semakin berkurang. Kerajaan hanya mengsahkan ia amat lemah dan sudah mati aqal untuk berdepan kerana ia memang pincang. Ini bermakna sentuhan reformasi selama ini sudahpun mengena sasaran..... Kerajaan Mahathir sudahpun terumbang dan bakal tenggelam jika cukup digoyang. Jika tidak ribut yang datang, lubang yang mebesar pada dasarnya akan membuat kapalnya karam. - Editor]

Reformasi Activists Under Detention

ISA is the refuge of the incompetent

by Dr Johan Saravanamuttu

The seven ISA arrests on April 10-11, an eighth on April 20, a ninth on April 24 and a tenth on April 26, are unconscionable acts committed by a regime that is at its wit's end. When a regime resorts to draconian laws such as the ISA to curb lawful dissent, the regime is merely one step away from overtly using violence against all dissidents. Such desperate acts show a regime's inability to deal with problems in a normal sort of way and betray its incompetence.

How dark and ironic it was to listen to the Inspector-General of Police's alarmist explanation of the arrests. The IGP alluded to a plan to ignite grenades, explosives and Molotov c0cktails at a human rights rally on April 14.

Not a shred of evidence was produced by the IGP to substantiate his claim or to show how those arrested were connected to the purported events. The IGP only deepened the mystery by referring to 'revelations' made by police intelligence.

For the record, those arrested are not faceless and nameless agents of subversive movements!

The ten detainees, all prominently known to the public, are: a vice-president, the youth chief and four other leaders of Parti Keadilan Nasional (Keadilan), the webmaster of the Free Anwar Campaign, a freelance film maker and web journalist, and two human rights activists.

Those who know these people know that they have scrupulously avoided any violence in their activities. All of them have been labelled 'reformasi activists' by the compliant mass media as if reformasi was something sinister and militant.

In fact, the whole tone of reformasi in Malaysia has been avowedly and consistently peaceful. About all that the ten detainees had ever ignited before their arrests is the continuing disgust, opprobrium and contempt for the present government of Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

And, for this, can we blame them?

Many people had anticipated that, desperate to stem the non-violent forces of reformasi, Mahathir would sanction an ISA 'swoop' as he did with 'Operation Lalang' on October 27, 1987. Beginning on that day, 106 social activists and politicians were detained.

Opposition politicians and social activists in Malaysia are understandably relieved that this has not happened - at least, not yet. Thus far the present wave of arrests are pointed in a specific direction - principally at Keadilan. But this does not make the present arrests any less traumatic for the ten detainees and their families or any less gloomy for Malaysia's future.

No civilised government has any excuse for using the ISA. But, inheriting the ISA from British colonial rule, all Malaysian governments have used and re-used it to repress all shades of opponents.

Even the government-established National Commission for Human Rights (SUHAKAM) has called on Mahathir's regime to discontinue the use of ISA and to charge the detainees in an open court of law if the regime has evidence against them. Numerous other voices at home and abroad have for years demanded that the ISA be abolished.

Why has the Mahathir regime deemed it necessary to use the ISA again? Let me offer five reasons why, and also why, ultimately, the ISA will fail to achieve Mahathir's goal. If anything at all, these desperate detentions will deepen the regime's crisis of legitimacy and make leadership change an even more urgent issue.

Reason 1: Crippling Reformasi

The first reason is a deceitful use of ISA to frighten the public, to make the public fear that the regime's opponents are plotting to topple it by 'subversive' and 'militant' means. This is a standard ploy.

Malaysia has never come close to such a situation other than during the Emergency (1948- 60). The real aim of using ISA is to cripple any movement, group or party that the government alleges is attempting to topple it.

Here the Mahathir regime badly needs to discredit reformasi and its most energetic leaders. To do so, the regime has foisted the ludicrous charge of 'militancy' upon the ten detainees, all of whom have been deeply associated with reformasi. In the past, the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Parti Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) had also been subjected to such attacks.

The attempt to emasculate reformasi has an obvious motive. Despite Anwar Ibrahim's sacking on September 2, 1998, his first sentencing on April 14, 1999 and second sentencing on August 8, 2000, the reformasi movement which Anwar inspired has grown stronger with more and more young people joining it.

Reformasi inflicted severe losses on the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in the November 1999 general election and continues to haunt Mahathir. For instance, an analysis of the 1999 election results in the state of Selangor shows that Malay-majority constituencies swung by 30 percent to the opposition when compared with the 1995 election.

If Mahathir's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) does not contain the forces of reformasi quickly, who knows: perhaps BN may lose the next election.

Reason 2: A Regime with No More Ideas

The second reason for using the ISA is a mundane one. The Mahathir regime is at its wit's end. It suffers from inertia, lack of imagination, deep insecurity, and denial. Hence the regime finds it convenient to use the ISA.

In Malaysia, the ISA is the biggest ass of laws: it hasn't budged no matter how often people have moved to have it abolished. Mahathir's insecure regime will not remove the ISA because it cannot bear the possibility of being ousted from office by electoral means.

Although the regime continues to deny it, many Malaysians believe that the Mahathir regime has overstayed its time but hangs on to power with the aid of ISA and other repressive laws.

Were there freer and fairer electoral competition, the regime which has been accused of corruption, injustice and incompetence might well have been defeated. An imaginative and responsive ruling party that can accept rejection by voters will not resort to laws like the ISA. If it was defeated, it would regenerate itself and try to return to power. But not the BN, it seems!

Reason 3: Mahathir Strengthens His Hand?

The third reason for using the ISA is sinister: a much-besieged leader is desperate to consolidate his personal power. To bolster his weakened position, Mahathir uses the repugnant ISA to show opponents and supporters alike that he can marshal force against them if he so chooses.

To take an example, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Home Affairs, Abdullah Badawi, was strangely nonplussed when he was quizzed about the arrests. Having once promised not to use the ISA, Abdullah seemed unable to explain the reason for this round of detentions. Presumably only the Prime Minister knew why.

Cases of besieged leaders resorting to force in politics are well documented in history. In autocratic regimes power is monopolised by one person or a small clique. The more insecure they feel the more frequently they will employ draconian measures to retain their power.

Despite having said many times he would retire 'if the signs are there', Mahathir has held power for 20 years. Mahathir's use of the ISA simply shows that he is unwilling to believe that the end of his tenure is practically here.

Reason 4: Reformasi is Everwhere

The fourth reason for using the ISA is not hard to find. Signs of reformasi are everywhere. Its staunchest supporters are the young. And it is Keadilan's young and energetic leaders who have maintained reformasi's momentum.

In the last general elections, Keadilan only won five parliamentary seats. Many of their leaders were very narrowly defeated. Since then, Keadilan has unexpectedly won a by-election in Lunas, in Mahathir's home state where support for UMNO has been draining away.

From Mahathir's perspective, the young 'reformasi activists' who managed the Lunas victory pose the most serious threat to his hold on power. Like so many other BN politicians, Mahathir must by now fear that the future of Malaysian politics, if not the next general election itself, may well belong to Keadilan and its Barisan Alternatif allies.

Reason 5: Pre-emptive Strike against keADILan

Therefore, the fifth reason has much to do with making a pre-emptive strike against Keadilan, almost to remove the party from electoral politics.

A closer reading of current politics in Malaysia suggests that the 48 parliamentary seats held in Sarawak and Sabah have become crucial to BN's hold on power. Out of those 48 seats, BN won all 28 in Sarawak and 17 of the 20 seats in Sabah. This lopsided result enabled BN to retain its two-thirds majority in parliament.

In Sarawak, recently, the schism between the Melanaus and the Malays has reared its head again within the ruling Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu, the dominant party of the Sarawak BN. In the last general election, Keadilan reaped the benefit of this in-fighting by winning about 30 to 40 per cent of the popular vote in Malay constituencies and dented somewhat the power of the Sarawak chief minister, Mahathir's ally.

Given that Sarawak is scheduled to hold state elections soon, could it be that Mahathir is anxious that Keadilan should not be in a position to do well in Sarawak? One of the ten detainees, a Keadilan youth leader, comes from Sarawak.

Why ISA won't work

Whatever may be their political reasons and Machiavellian objectives, it is obvious that its users consider it as a final resort and virtually an embarrassment. Why else would a regime stoop so low as to fabricate all sorts of outlandish explanations to justify the despicable use of this instrument of repression?

There had been so much use of the ISA in the past, and cynical use, too, that ordinary people have come to disbelieve the reasons offered for ISA arrests. The published and televised 'confessions' of ISA victims, extracted under duress, have long been exposed as mere charades.

Ex-detainees and human rights organisations have exposed those confessions to be the results of the 'turning over' techniques of the Special Branch police who have never been held accountable for inflicting mental and physical torture on detainees.

Especially since Anwar's trials, there is a huge credibility gap when it comes to ISA. So it will be with this wave of arrests. If some of those presently detained later confess their 'crimes', no one, other than Mahathir and his diehard supporters, will believe the confessions.

However, ISA has helped to create a culture of fear in our body politic. Few people would stand up to protest the use of the ISA. In adding its voice to the many anti-ISA voices, SUHAKAM has made an important contribution to changing this culture of fear.

I believe that Malaysian society is beginning to find a critical mass of people who will mobilise to remove the ISA from our midst. Difficult as detention will be for the ten imprisoned 'reformasi activists', their arrests will merely swell the ranks of objectors to the ISA. The more principled leaders of Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, a member of BN, have openly questioned the use of the ISA.

The use of the ISA will not put an end to reformasi. Reformasi was not something created by a few individuals. It is rooted in a broad and deep discontent with the Mahathir regime because of the latter's obstinate denial of its own injustice, incompetence, lack of accountability and lack of human decency.

The regime's latest use of the ISA can only undercut the eroded legitimacy of the present leadership and lead it to a further slide into ignominy. It is only a matter of time before such a regime self-destructs.

Malaysian citizens should not allow this sorry state of affairs to continue since it only insults their intelligence, weakens their moral fibre and turns their country into a pariah state in the eyes of global society. Is it too much to expect this of them?