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ATimes: Fire without smoke? [DTC/ISA]
By Anil Netto

14/7/2001 4:22 am Sat

From Asia Times
13th July 2001


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.