Mahathir Mohamad

Reform or ruin

There is optimism following the 100 days of Malaysia’s new government – but the country’s marginalised groups wonder if it will go far enough to fight for equal rights

Josef Benedict
August 22, 2018
Reform or ruin
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad Photo: Larry Leung China Out/EPA-EFE

It is difficult to describe the euphoria produced by an event that, in a single day, vanquishes a party’s 61-year grip on power and its corruption-tainted leader.

Almost 100 days since Malaysia’s opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition took office after a historic election outcome in May, there’s still a strong whiff of optimism in the air. But not all Malaysians – in particular, marginalised groups that have long borne the brunt of repressive state action – are holding their breath for the dawn of the rights-respecting, corruption-free country the new rulers have promised.

Certainly, the administration has moved quickly to deliver on some of its election pledges, such as investigating the corruption scandal involving the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and bringing charges against former Prime Minister Najib Razak. It has established a committee on reforming institutions, particularly the police, which have violated rights with impunity for years; has begun the process to repeal a “fake news” law that muzzled the press; and committed to ratifying international human rights treaties.

But for some civil society groups and activists in Malaysia, particularly those advocating for the rights of marginalised communities, the new government’s 100-day report card includes concerns that reforms will not go far enough, leaving them to continue their years-long human rights battles.

Continued forced evictions for farmers to favour private developers

Jerit, or the Coalition of Oppressed Peoples, has been mobilising marginalised communities and farmers since 2002 to demand the rights of workers and indigenous people as well as land rights, fighting forced evictions by private developers working in cahoots with the state. Over the years, many Jerit activists have been intimidated by state government officials or private companies and targeted for arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment, and prosecution by the previous government for their activism. But while the political change might be encouraging, activist Karthiges Rajamanickam said he’s seeing little of that change on the ground.

“I was arrested last week in Penang for opposing a forced eviction,” Karthiges revealed. He is currently facing criminal charges arising from that arrest. “This may be an isolated case… [but] it seems the new government seems to be still operating in the old ways of [the former ruling party] Barisan Nasional at the same time we are seeing some reforms,” he said.

While he’s prepared to give the new government time to prove it is different from its predecessors, Rajamanickam is concerned that its policies on land will be dictated by private developers.

Indigenous people: still profits above lives and land?

Another marginalised group that is expectantly watching for a change in policy are indigenous Malaysians – among them, the Orang Asli indigenous tribes of Peninsular Malaysia who make up about 1% of the population. Previous administrations had long sought to strip their identity by categorising them as members of the dominant Malay ethnic group. As a result, the authorities have rarely acknowledged their claims of ownership of their land when it decides to grant logging concessions to private companies.

“We were relieved [when the opposition coalition won the election], as we feel we can engage with the new government about our concerns,” said July Lanchong, an indigenous activist from the state of Negeri Sembilan.

“We do not know if we can achieve our objectives. We will need to monitor their comments and actions,” he said.

But Lanchong need not look far for an indication of actions the government is already taking against indigenous communities in the interests of plantations or commercial logging.

In the state of Kelantan this month, a fruit company intimidated and tore down a blockade by the Temiar indigenous community, set up to guard their land from incursions by loggers and plantation workers.

Indigenous people in Sarawak, a state in northwest Borneo island, are now mobilising against a new law passed in July that strips them of customary rights to their land, requiring them to apply to the state for recognition of ancestral domain and communal forests. That coincides with growing demand for territory for commercial logging enterprises. Yet another case of government – this time, a new broom promising sweeping reforms – placing logging interests above the rights of indigenous communities.

Refugees: ready to legally work, learn and move freely in Malaysia

Malaysia’s refugee community has suffered untold discrimination and hardship at the hands of the former ruling BN party. Refugees are not legally allowed to work or attend school in the country. But one campaign promise has inspired hope among refugees and their advocates: in its election manifesto, Pakatan Harapan pledged to ratify the 1951 International Convention on Refugees, which would grant refugees employment rights.

“It will make it easier for people once they sign this [document]. I hope they will give us rights to go to school, to hospital, freedom of movement and documentation,” said Muhamad Hason of the Geutanyoe Foundation, a regional rights group.

But the Mahathir administration is yet to spell out a clear plan of when it plans to ratify the Refugee Convention or any other policy reform that will ease hardship on refugees and protect their rights. Until then, refugees will continue to live in limbo. Refugee rights need to be normalised through legislation amendments and policy changes. Activists are intent on holding the government to their election promise to “create a Malaysia that is inclusive, progressive, just and free from any forms of discrimination”.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, said in May this year that more than 150,000 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the agency in Malaysia. Close to half are Rohingya refugees, like Hason, fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar.

High hopes

It’s no secret that in a socially conservative, majority-Muslim country like Malaysia, the issue of sexual orientation is a prickly one. Perhaps that’s putting it mildly. The nation’s LGBT community has been the target of a systematic attack by the previous government, carried out through discriminatory laws and policies that have had a chilling effect on LGBT Malaysians, affecting their employment, housing, education and how the media portrays them.

Since 2012, there has been an increase in state-sponsored and state-funded anti-LGBT projects such as rehabilitation camps for transgender people and manuals, publications and videos promoting the notion idea that LGBT individuals can be “corrected”. This has created a fertile ground for the open expression of hostility towards LGBT.

But among LGBT activists like Thilaga Sulathireh, there are some signs inspiring hope that this government might finally take the lead on real strides towards inclusivity and acceptance of their community.

“[The election outcome] may allow for more space and more conversations,” said Sulathireh of Justice for Sisters, a network collective that works on gender and sexuality issues.

There are more pro-human rights elected representatives in the state assembly and parliament. This presents an opportunity to improve the standards of human rights issues in Malaysia in general, including standards for LGBT people

She is also cautious that hostility from right-wing groups, who now claim that the liberals have won power and believe that LGBT people will have their rights, will lead to heightened conservatism within the new government.

A case in point is the high-profile controversy around Numan Afifi, an LGBT activist and cabinet minister’s aide who was hounded out of his job in July by a vicious backlash and threats. Meanwhile, new Religious Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa has been saying publicly that LGBT groups are not “allowed to practice the lifestyle in the country.” Recently the Minister ordered the portraits of LGBT activists taken down from an exhibition.

As sudden and dramatic as the political change was in Malaysia, few if any rights groups realistically expect to see that scale and pace of change in their struggles. But they all share a revived sense of optimism coupled with a steeled determination to keep up the pressure, as they’ve done for years, for positive political, legislative, economic and social progress.

Josef Benedict is a Kuala Lumpur-based civic space researcher with global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.

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