BN and Sarawak’s Chief Minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud, have exhibited their concern about the growing tide of criticism engulfing their government by launching a series of lash-backs in the past 24 hours.
On Thursday night they utilised the police to arrest two groups of high-profile NGOs within a few hours of each other. Both groups were threatened with charges of possessing seditious material, but were eventually released.
The material concerned included discs containing recordings of the popular Radio Free Sarawak programme, which operates as an independent political voice in Malaysia without a Government licence, as well as clips from the alternative Sarawak TV, Bebas.
Nervous of legitimate criticism?
Sarawak Report can offer exclusive pictures of the police raid on the Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (SADIA), which took place in Kota Sentosa, Kuching, in the early hours of the morning on Thursday. Plain clothes police, accompanied by
Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs (Kementerian Dalam Negeri – KDN) officials, ransacked the office and removed the discs and copying machines, along with some leaflets and posters. The offensive leaflets bore a compelling visual message – illustrating Sarawak as a milk cow and Taib Mahmud and Najib sitting beneath its udders and squeezing it dry!
The organisation’s Secretary General, Nicholas Mujah, and two associates were taken to the police station for questioning until after 3am before being released. Police also removed legitimate equipment from the office, yet it is believed that the group was eventually released without charges.
Parallel arrest in Miri
This raid in Kuching followed an earlier arrest at Miri airport of the respected NGO lawyer Abun Sui Anyit, who has fought a number of successful cases against the government’s seizure of Native Customary Rights Land on behalf of a number of local communities. He had just arrived from Kuching and is believed to have also been in possession of
CDs containing episodes of Radio Free Sarawak. Clearly the fact that the radio station is building a faithful and growing audience in the state has worried the incumbent Chief Minister. The station, which is broadcast on SW and is available also on the internet, is regularly highly critical of corruption and human rights abuses. It also frequently draws attention to land grab issues affecting native communities, who have had their lands ‘alienated’ under Taib’s amended land laws.
‘Yes it’s political’!
Abun Sui was informed by the arresting officers that he was being detained for “political reasons” and that he was likely to be charged under the Sedition Act of Malaysia (1948) for possessing ‘seditious’ material! But eventually the lawyer was released without charges, showing that the authorities’ jittery behaviour may not be as focussed and organised as their political masters might like.
Meanwhile, Chee See How, a lawyer working with the PKR leader Baru Bian, who is also a leading human rights lawyer in Sarawak, accompanied the SADIA personnel to the police station and they also were eventually released on police bail without charges.
This form of response to the recent criticism shows a level of intolerance towards freedom of speech (which the Government Minister James Masing himself recently defended in an interview with Radio Free Sarawak) that is troubling for the growing opposition movement in Sarawak. But such defensiveness also reveals deep worries within BN about the volume of dissent in the run up to the upcoming State Elections.
The government knows that to use such brute force in its attempts to curb criticism is in danger of back-firing, not least because of the large number of prominent lawyers who are prepared to defend those politicians and NGOs who are
supporting human rights cases against the hundreds of land grabs sponsored by Taib Mahmud and the BN administration. There is also the danger of attracting the international attention of the large number of NGOs, who are concerned by the escalation of environmental and human rights issues in Sarawak.
Will arrests back-fire?
So, Taib has flashed his claws. But, he will have to decide carefully what to do next and whether to continue this strategy of harrassment and arrests or to adopt a lower-key approach for fear of provoking even more bad publicity than he has been receiving already.
Radio Free Sarawak can be accessed at 1800-1900 on 15420 kHz (SW) and at 2000-2100 on 6205 kHz (SW) or via its podcast on www.radiofreesarawak.org.
We send out the latest story at 7am Malaysia time