US diplomats should speak up when Malaysia abuses human rights, says activist

May 30, 2014

A global rights advocate called on United States diplomats in Malaysia not to stay silent on human rights abuses in the country following the tone set by President Barack Obama on his recent visit here.

Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division Phil Robertson (pic) called on the US ambassador and his team to pressure Malaysia to adhere to international human rights standards.

He said that US diplomats here had an important role to play in pushing the Malaysian government to do better on rights issues.

“Obama’s visit was generally positive in raising human rights issues, there was discussion at an open forum where he made some important remarks.

“Now, it is up to diplomats here to follow up and to be there when Perkasa attacks the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) group and also speak up when Malaysiakini is threatened with a scandalous defamation suit by the Malaysian prime minister.

“These are issues that the ambassador and his team should be taking up on a regular basis,” Robertson told The Malaysian Insider.

He added that US was in a position to raise these issues and the Malaysian government was likely to listen to them.

Robertson said that while the two countries were in talks over many other issues, including the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and the Trans Pacific Partnership deal, it should not diminish US’s commitment to raise human rights issues not just privately, but publicly as well.

During his state visit to Malaysia last month, Obama had said at a town hall session with Asean youth leaders that Malaysia must ensure non-Muslims in the country also have equal opportunities as its Muslim majority if the country wanted to continue prospering.

Obama had also met with 10 civil society groups who brought up human rights issues.

Robertson’s call for the US to take a keener interest in Malaysia’s human rights track record comes against a backdrop where the reformist tone set by Datuk Seri Najib Razak before the 13th general election was gone and replaced with a government that was using repressive laws such as the Sedition Act and the Peaceful Assembly Act to handicap or knock out key members of the opposition pact.

“It is a scurrilous way to operate and goes against freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful public assembly and freedom of association.

“Before the GE, I noted that among the countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia could either make the most progress or fall back in a significant way, unfortunately it has fallen back,” he said.

He also chided Najib for his threat to take action against online news portal Malaysiakini.

“As a leader who decided to get involved in public affairs, the PM should not be thin-skinned, he’s got to toughen up because politics is a rough and tumble sport.

“What we have here is a case where readers were responding to an article, they are essentially letters to the editor.

“So, will the PM go door to door next and sue every Malaysian who says something he doesn’t like?” Robertson asked.

The human rights advocate is also concerned that religious minority groups are being targeted in Malaysia, as seen in the persecution of the Muslim Shia sect and the controversy over the use of the word Allah.

Robertson noted that while on one hand, the government was eager to pursue the “Allah” ban in Selangor and in Peninsular Malaysia, it was at the same time issuing guarantees to the people in Sabah and Sarawak that their Malay Bibles would “not be touched”.

“This is like playing with fire because you are assuming that you can push this agenda to the extent it will result in a political advantage without it getting out of control, this is very worrisome,” he said.

Robertson added that this was happening because Putrajaya was politically insecure, causing Umno to become increasingly beholden to more conservative elements that had a narrow view of human rights.

He said what was needed instead was a rights-respecting Malaysia where all religious and ethnic groups were treated fairly and equally before the law.

“This is the stability required for Malaysia going forth, but so far, too many people feel this is not happening,” he added.

And while Robertson hailed the efforts of rights advocates in Malaysia, he chided Putrajaya for violating the right of freedom of association using the Registrar of Societies and the Societies Act.

“The Registrar of Societies is a politically controlled position manipulated by the Malaysian government and organisations that have taken even a slightly critical tone towards the government are not given approval and no explanation is provided.

“This is a clear hidden abuse that has been going on for decades, it has to be stopped,” Robertson said. – May 30, 2014.