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ATimes: Fire without smoke? [DTC/ISA]
By Anil Netto
14/7/2001 4:22 am Sat
From Asia Times
Fire without smoke?
By Anil Netto
PENANG, Malaysia - Senior ruling coalition politicians who had implied
that student "militancy" was to blame for a fire that razed a
university auditorium have been left red-faced after a fire department
probe report revealed the blaze was probably due to an old and
overloaded wiring system.
The fire and rescue department's probe into the June 29 blaze revealed
"it was caused by the old wiring system and not due to arson or foul
play", reported the Malay Mail on July 11. The wiring system
apparently had not been upgraded over the years.
The authorities are, however, waiting for reports from the police, the
electrical and gas supply department and the chemistry department
before making their final report public.
Dozens of undergraduates and security guards were among those
questioned by police in their probe into the pre-dawn fire at the
Universiti Malaya's Dewan Tunku Canselor in Kuala Lumpur, which
resulted in damage of about 12.4 million ringgit (US$3.3 million).
The auditorium was razed a day before Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
was to attend a dialogue session with students, prompting senior
ruling coalition politicians to link the fire to student militancy.
The officials implied political sentiments might have influenced those
they suspected of starting the fire. "Stopping [Mahathir] from
attending the function is not a right action," the Sun daily quoted
Muhyiddin Yasin, a vice-president in Mahathir's United Malays National
Organization (Umno), as saying on June 30. He said the blaze showed a
trend towards fanaticism and narrow-mindedness.
Said former Umno stalwart Rahim Tamby Chik a day earlier, "We suspect
that the fire was a sabotage involving a conspiracy to ensure the
failure of this weekend's symposium."
The leader of Umno's new women's youth wing, Azalina Othman Said,
promptly called for the head of the university's vice chancellor,
Anuar Zaini Mohamad Zain, to roll. Apart from the fire, she claimed he
had allowed the circulation of an anti-government magazine and the
distribution of anti-government pamphlets on the night of the fire.
"The fire certainly seems related to the prime minister's visit this
weekend," she said, in demanding Anuar's resignation. Cooler heads
prevailed, however, and Anuar was allowed to continue with his job.
Although Mahathir avoided pinning the blame on students directly, he
said there was a trend towards "militancy" in universities: "Many go
there not to study but to take part in issues unrelated to studies."
Legal Affairs Minister Rais Yatim, for his part, said, "We are not
going after student leaders per se, but against those who do not take
care of the safety of the institution." Rais added that current
government leaders had also been student activists before but they did
not burn down a building as a way of expressing their opinions.
Within a week of the blaze, two students were arrested under the tough
Internal Security Act (ISA), which permits indefinite detention
without trial. It was not clear whether their detentions were related
to the fire.
Officials are clearly concerned though about student disquiet on
campus in recent months. Students have protested against Mahathir and
the authorities' arrest of 10 reformasi activists under the ISA in
April. Six of them are still in detention.
On June 8, some 200 students demonstrated peacefully against the ISA
outside the National Mosque, prompting police to retaliate. In recent
weeks, student activists have faced disciplinary action, suspension
and expulsion as a result of student activism on campus.
But it was only after the fire that the ISA was used against students
for probably the first time since the 1970s, when student activism
last reached its height. Since then, Malaysia's stifling Universities
and University Colleges Act has been amended to forbid political
activism among university students.
Rights groups have called for the immediate release of the two
students and all other ISA detainees, while social reform group has
Aliran urged the authorities to cease all intimidation of students.
Not surprisingly, news of the fire department report putting the cause
of fire to faulty wiring has been largely downplayed in mainstream
media. The pro-government New Straits Times, which launched a
fund-raising campaign immediately after the blaze to help restore the
auditorium, mentioned the faulty wiring in a small paragraph in page 3
tucked in the middle of an article on the fundraising efforts.
The 33-page fire department report, submitted to Mahathir at a Cabinet
meeting on July 11, is likely to be a major embarrassment among those
who have been trying to villify student activists on campus.
With an eye on regional pro-democracy movements, the authorities have
been taking no chances with student activists, who have recently
stepped up pressure on Mahathir, who completes 20 years in power this
month. Mahathir has consistently scolded student activists for
allegedly being lazy and not interested in studies. For their part,
many of these students are genuinely concerned about what they
perceive to be the abuse of power and corruption in society.
Mahathir may find that tough action against students will only
suppress their expressions of grievances for the time being and drive
them underground. Winning their hearts over in the long run will
likely be more difficult and probably even beyond him.