By Kua Kia Soong
2016 was certainly one of the worst years for human rights in Malaysia with detention without trial used against human rights defenders, bringing back memories of Operation Lalang unleashed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1987. Malaysia’s internationally celebrated cartoonist was arrested and charged, the online press Malaysiakini harassed yet again, neo-fascists intimidating peaceful Bersih 5 participants and getting away with impunity… all of these abominations happened while the country was embroiled in one of the biggest financial scandals involving the national sovereign fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.
While the police have been skilful at arresting and detaining Malaysians such as Maria Chin, Zunar and others, they have proven ineffectual at apprehending human traffickers, industrial polluters of water sources and the person or persons who have issued death threats against Maria. Have we seen any convictions against these criminals? Can we therefore count on our police force to apprehend international terrorists? And by letting neo-fascists get away with their bullying behaviour with impunity, the police run the risk of losing all credibility as keepers of law and order.
The charade over foreign funding
In an attempt to discredit the Bersih 5 rally, the Malaysian government has once again raised the spectre of foreign funding of Malaysian NGOs by naming George Soros’s Open Society Foundations in particular. The government has conveniently omitted to mention Soros’s recent cordial interactions with both the former premier Mahathir and present Prime Minister Najib Razak.
It was disingenuous of the government to make such an issue over Malaysian recipients of foreign funds when 2016 was a year that unraveled the fact that the Najib was the biggest single receiver of foreign funds in Malaysian history – all RM2.6 billion in his personal bank account. He himself revealed that this humongous sum was from the Saudi royal family. Now, if we were to compare the respective recipients of the Saudi royal family’s donations and those of Soros’s, I think there is no comparison.
For example, from the recent Wikileaks, we discover that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sent an email to her campaign chairman John Podesta in 2014, who was then-counsellor to President Barack Obama in which it was intimated that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were both giving financial and logistical support to the Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups. Saudi Arabia had also been bombing Yemen rebels for more than a year now creating yet another humanitarian crisis there.
On the other hand, human rights NGOs such as Suaram are transparent in our work as we have to be especially when we are dealing with a vindictive government. We became even more open when the government ordered at least six agencies to investigate our accounts and files in 2012 and 2013. The vain attempt to demonise us in concert with mainstream media ended up with the NST having to make the “mother of all editorial apologies” to us after we sued them. And still the powers that be have persisted in playing the same old charade against Maria Chin and Bersih in 2016. How can we achieve national transformation when we waste national resources in such pointless exercises? The police, special branch and other government agencies should be deployed in more productive operations.
And where do Suaram’s funds go? More tall stories abound, such as one blogger surmised: “There are clear reasons why Suaram receives funding; it publishes books and political articles written by its founder, Kua Kia Soong, that are highly critical of the Malaysian government and are capable of arousing passions in ethnic minorities who feel marginalised through arguing in favour of regime change.” (Nile Bowie, “Understanding US Funding to Malaysian Civil Society” April 5, 2013)
We certainly do not need any funding for publications other than our annual human rights reports. Suaram’s funding goes towards nurturing a small staff of committed activists who document and monitor human rights issues; help various victims of detentions and police abuse and conduct human rights training and campaigns. After their exhaustive investigation of Suaram in 2012 and 2013, the Malaysian government is probably the best authority on Suaram’s finances and spending and can vouch for our squeaky clean record.
Extremely bad governance
2016 was a year of extremely bad governance with the US Department of Justice naming those who abused Malaysia’s national sovereign fund 1MDB although for some strange reason, it stopped short of naming the Malaysian Official #1.
The Opposition-run state governments have not been examples of good governance either:
The Kelantan government continues to allow logging on Orang Asli land and has been suppressing the blockades set up by the besieged “Original People” of Malaysia. The Forestry Department and the police have taken the side of the loggers instead of that of the oppressed indigenous people.
The Selangor government allows highways that cut through state park forests and seems to be helpless against factories situated dangerously close to our valuable water sources.
In Penang, the Chief Minister still refuses to resign after being charged with corruption. This sets a bad precedent for any other office bearer in government, including MO#1, should he be charged for corruption.
Getting away with impunity
Finally, the spectacle of Mahathir joining the opposition raises a disturbing question surrounding his culpability in so many scandals that have been documented by the Leader of the Opposition from 1981 to 2003. Does he now get away with impunity for all his transgressions against accountability and loss of national coffers simply because he has joined the opposition coalition?
This “Born Again” rule seems to apply even to the prime minister who assaulted the Malaysian judiciary so badly we have hardly recovered thirty years afterwards. He has not only been cleansed and forgiven; some opposition leaders are even calling for him to lead the opposition against the current regime. So, it looks more than likely that Pakatan Harapan leaders will allow the “born again democrat” to get away with impunity for all the financial scandals that cost the rakyat so many billions of ringgit during the 80s and 90s.
For human rights defenders who demand social justice, democracy and human rights, there is no place for impunity. Impunity means “exemption from punishment or loss or escape from fines”. The First Principle of the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity, submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on February 8, 2005 states that: “Impunity arises from a failure by States to meet their obligations to investigate violations; to take appropriate measures in respect of the perpetrators, particularly in the area of justice, by ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility are prosecuted, tried and duly punished; to provide victims with effective remedies and to ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered; to ensure the inalienable right to know the truth about violations; and to take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations.”
This principle applies to past transgressors as much as it does to present leaders who flout good governance for if Pakatan Harapan can let Mahathir get away with impunity, they will have to do the same for MO#1 when he decides to step down from office.
Kua Kia Soong is the advisor of SUARAM (Suara Rakyat Malaysia).