Malaysia: NGOs Under Attack

Four NGOs Defend Democracy

When human rights come under threat, NGOs mount a vigorous defense. Four groups in Malaysia oppose a leader allegedly steeped in corruption. Prime minister Najib Razak stands accused by the U.S. Justice Department of allowing a family friend to embezzle $3.5 billion from the state-run investment fund. 

Cornered by critics pressing him to step down, the Prime Minister is appealing to populist sentiment, the The Wall Street Journal reported in September 2016:  

“Mr. Najib is using the same strategy predecessors used when faced with domestic opposition: Play the Malay nationalism card. The country’s racial divide makes this a powerful and dangerous weapon.”

Silencing vocal critics extends to locking up an outspoken member of Malaysia’s parliament, Mr. Rafizi Ramili. A lower court convicted Mr. Ramili of violating the nebulous official secrets act by disclosing classified audit findings related to the pillaged government investment fund.

Lawyers for Liberty  stands by Mr. Ramili, a member of the People’s Justice Party.

“The 18 months’ imprisonment sentence can only be described as harsh and excessive, all the more so as Rafizi was merely performing his role as an elected representative.”

The Lawyers for Liberty press statement attached a dire warning: “The conviction and sentence will create a dangerous chill on free speech and result in a more repressive, opaque and unaccountable government.”

Bersih 2.0 rallied its supporters across the country in October, encouraging them to march for electoral reforms, a freer press and strong public institutions along with ending corruption. Bersih translated into English means clean. Its chairman, Maria Chin, went to court in September over charges that she failed to notify police in advance of a rally in 2015. A high court allowed the charges to stand, an appeals court dismissed them. 

Government officials paint critics as minorities trying to seize power or agitators seeking disruption. They insist that the media has overblown corruption charges. A government minister called revealing findings a “cheap stunt” that warrants punishment for Mr. Ramili.

Where argument fails, paramilitary “red shirts” and “black shirts” use violence to intimidate Malaysian citizens exercising the right to free speech. “Their behaviour has been mobster-like,” a Bersih press statement charged, “and their actions are tantamount to criminal intimidation.”

“When the Bersih 2.0 motorists tried to continue with their convoy, the red shirt motorists revved their motorbikes and deliberately blocked our security bikers from carrying out their duties of ensuring the convoy’s safety.”

Cynthia Gabriel, director of the Center to Combat Corruption & Cronyism, a Malaysian NGO, told The New York Times that she questioned the need to conceal findings that Mr. Ramili exposed.

“The Official Secrets Act is being used to hide corruption,” Ms Gabriel said. “We need freedom of information laws to help the public monitor and bring to account powerful politicians and businesses.”

A fourth NGO, the Asian branch of Human Rights Watch, expressed similar puzzlement to the Times. Deputy director of the Asia division Phil Robertson said that secrecy departs from past practice. “This prosecution really is unprecedented because it involves a sitting MP, and the content is the Auditor General’s annual report, which prior to this year has regularly been released to the public after being introduced in Parliament.”

As this story unfolds, stay tuned to NGOs.