Asia Watch: State of Tension

Michael Shannon

In Malaysia today, it seems that being sympathetic to the Palestinian cause is not enough – especially if you are Christian and (even worse) have visited the Holy Land, which means entering Israel.

A report in the online news site Bikyamasr on July 15 told the account of Joseph Azaz, a Malaysian Christian who has endured months of harassment since visiting the Holy Land earlier this year.
“I have been harassed by security personnel who want to know what I was doing there,” he told Bikyamasr.com. “All I can tell them is that I was trying to see the places where Jesus was, but they don’t believe me.”

He said that they questioned his “love for Israel” and if he met with any Israeli officials during his two-week vacation. “I try to explain that just because I am Christian and went to Israel, doesn’t mean I don’t support the Palestinians. I mean, I saw first-hand the struggle there,” he added.

In April, the harassment reached a tipping point, and he made a formal complaint to the country’s police force, asking them to stop.

“Two men, in uniform, came to my flat and forced their way into my home. They questioned my wife and me for hours, asking about exact places we went in Israel and who we met. It wasn’t until we started talking about Nablus and the West Bank that they calmed and understood we were not troublemakers,” Azaz was quoted as saying.

Malaysia bars Israeli citizens from entering their country, in a symbolic show of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and will continue the policy “until Palestine is a free country,” according to the country’s foreign ministry.

A ban on Malaysian travel to Israel was lifted in 2010, yet Azaz and other Christians are treated as virtual criminals if they go.

It seems that Malaysia’s internal sensitivities are at play here, where an uneasy relationship between the Muslim majority and the Christian and Hindu minorities manifests in a heavy-handed security apparatus and vitriolic political discourse.

Although Malaysia lacks the excesses of political extremism seen in Indonesia – an Islamic Defenders Front or an Abu Bakar Bashir – its political system is arguably more beset by inertia and a bitter stalemate brought about by decades of domination by one party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO).

The atmosphere since the last general election in 2008, which produced unprecedented gains for the opposition parties, has been even more heated. Since that election, Najib Razak has assumed the prime ministership and Anwar Ibrahim has re-entered the parliament and shrugged off a second round of sodomy allegations.

The problem now for Prime Minister Najib and his UMNO-led government, however, is that time is running short to win a pre-emptive electoral advantage before the current five-year parliamentary term expires in April 2013.

Speculation about snap elections has intensified as parties led by opposition leader Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) begin to fancy their chances of wresting power from UMNO and the Barisan Nasional coalition for the first time since independence.

A steady stream of corruption allegations against Najib’s government has dented its public image and, amid economic weakness, earlier vows by Najib to repeal, reform or replace some of the country’s more anti-democratic laws have failed to give UMNO any popular momentum as officials have maintained heavy-handed tactics against political dissent.

In April, the government’s harsh treatment of the peaceful Bersih 3.0 street protests – calling for wide-ranging reforms to the country’s electoral process – prompted mass arrests and the use of tear gas and water cannons, dispelling any notion that Najib’s government was serious about democratic reforms.

Indeed, Najib spelt out his view quite clearly in recent days that reform and greater liberalism in Malaysia threaten to bring instability.

Speaking to more than 10,000 Islamic leaders just days before the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan began, Razak said he supported human rights but “within the boundaries set by Islam.”
“Pluralism, liberalism? All these ‘isms’ are against Islam, and it is compulsory for us to fight these,” he said. He also argued that Islam and moderation are the keys to Malaysia’s successful move towards development and tolerance.

Yet, clearly this tolerance does not extend to prominent Bersih activists, some of whom have faced intimidation and even assault by unknown individuals or little-known groups believed to be supportive of UMNO.

Even the announced repeal of the Mahathir-era Internal Security Act (ISA) has not removed the spectre of detention without charge. It will be replaced by a new Security Offenses Act (which still allows for detention without charge); meanwhile, 45 ISA detainees remain incarcerated, some for years without formal charges being pressed. A detainee hunger strike took place in June, but Najib met all criticism with silence.