Last weekend, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the centre of Kuala Lumpur to demand clean and free elections. Malaysia’s ruling coalition, which has dominated the country since independence, has a history of fraud, intimidation and other thuggery at the polls. The Bersih rallies (Bersih, meaning 'clean', is the nickname for the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) were non-violent, but the government struck back with brutal force. The police attacked the demonstrators with batons, water cannon and tear gas, killing at least one and putting many in hospital, including the leader of the political opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, who was photographed with obvious wounds to his head and legs. More than 1500 people were arrested.
The recent spate of attacks on churches in Malaysia, following a court ruling allowing Christians to use the word ‘Allah’ for their god, has surprised many outsiders who thought the country was relatively tolerant. But for decades, even as Malaysia’s government portrayed the country as a racially harmonious society, non-Malays have quietly chafed at discrimination against them. Following race riots in 1969, the government launched an affirmative action initiative known as the New Economic Policy. It was intended to redistribute wealth from ethnic Chinese, who make up about 25 per cent of the population but historically ran much of the country’s business, to ethnic Malays, who comprise about 65 per cent. Most of the rest of the population are ethnic Indians.
Seems like déjà vu all over again in Malaysia. The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who was sentenced to jail in 2000 for sodomy (it’s a crime in Malaysia), once more faces similar charges. As before, Anwar, a former leader of the governing coalition who turned to the opposition, claims he’s been set up by the ruling party, which has dominated Malaysian politics (not to mention the police force and judiciary) since independence. He has a point. Several of the people who, in the previous case, had claimed to have had sex with him later recanted their confessions, and the DNA evidence seemed likely to have been fabricated. This time, an independent medical report has found that the man who claimed to have had sex with Anwar was never sodomised. Not that the police have anything to fear. In another recent high-profile case, a journalist who had reported allegations of corruption supposedly fell to his death from a skyscraper while in custody. A forensic report by a Thai scientist not affiliated with the Malaysian government concluded that the man had been beaten severely before he ‘fell’.