Malaysia

Putrajaya’s SUARAM probe sparks civil society activism

By Ida Lim
September 23, 2012

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 23 ― Outrage at Putrajaya’s clampdown on Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) appears to have given a major boost to civil society activism here, likely affecting the Najib government’s bid for votes from middle Malaysia ahead of an election expected soon. 

The human rights watchdog has been instrumental in the French probe on Malaysia’s multibillion ringgit purchase of two Scorpene submarines, a high-profile scandal that many believe will unearth incriminating evidence against top government officials here. 

Global rights group Amnesty International had yesterday raised suspicion over the timing of the government’s sudden interest in SUARAM’s operations and funding sources, saying the probe was opened only four weeks after the organisation revealed documents showing a close associate to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had allegedly sold Malaysian naval secrets to the French. 

A new citizen group has now sprouted, joining the burgeoning of other civil society movements nationwide in a campaign to help SUARAM keep the Scorpene scandal in the limelight. 

Calling themselves the “Scorpene Never Dies” Action Team, the group of youths and “concerned citizens” has demanded that the Najib administration stop its “politically-motivated” investigation against SUARAM. 

Team coordinator Ng Yap Hwa said this was a poignant moment for Malaysians as their failure to band together to protect SUARAM would only encourage the government to continue to quell public dissent. 

“We feel we need to stand by Suaram in this critical time. 

“If we as citizens don’t rally behind a human rights defender, the government could easily clamp down... no more people can stand by us in the future,” he said. 

The team is organising a one-hour candlelight vigil next Tuesday at the historic Merdeka Square in the city centre here where several other protests fuelled by civil society activism have taken place recently. 

The team has also urged Malaysians nationwide to hold simultaneous events next week to record their disdain for the alleged harassment against SUARAM. 

Ng said that if members of the public keep silent now, “we will be the next (victim)” one day. 

He said that to “defend Suaram and to stand by Suaram” is for everyone’s benefit. 

Ng added that the team would not be applying for a police permit for its 8pm event at the historic Merdeka square, as it was every individual’s “constitutional right” to have a peaceful assembly. 

“Let us spread the Scorpene submarines issue far and wide to express our solidarity with the human rights defender, thereby warning the government that even if it could keep down SUARAM, the Scorpene submarines issue would never die and we would carry on the struggle to uncover the truth of the Scorpenes scandal and uphold justice for Altantuya,” the group said in a statement. 

SUARAM recently came under close scrutiny of the Companies Commission of Malaysia (CCM) due to its foreign funding sources and the government agency said earlier this week that it plans to charge the activist group for its “misleading accounts”. 

The human rights NGO has been actively pursuing the Scorpene scandal in the French courts, determined to expose the government of alleged corruption in the purchase multibillion submarines in 2009 and possibly reopen the murder case of Mongolian model Altantuyaa Shaariibuu, which is said to be linked to the deal. 

In April this year, the Tribunal de Grand Instance in Paris began its inquiry into Suaram’s claim that the French naval firm DCNS had paid some RM452 million as a bribe to Malaysian officials to obtain a contract for two submarines. Suaram had filed the complaint with the French courts in 2009. 

At a May 30 press conference in Bangkok, SUARAM’s French lawyer Joseph Breham had revealed that a highly-document government document on the Malaysian navy’s evaluation of the Scorpene submarines it planned to buy was sold by Terasasi (Hong Kong) Ltd to DCNS for RM142 million. 

Abdul Razak Baginda, a former think-tank head who was at the centre of the 2006 investigation into Altantuya’s murder, is listed as a director of Terasasi with his father, Abdul Malim Baginda. Abdul Razak is said to be a close associate to Najib. 

“It was a secret document by the Malaysian navy, an evaluation for the order of the submarines, which is a highly confidential report,” Breham had said at the conference. 

A total of 138 local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and 56 regional NGOs recently pledged their support for SUARAM, calling for a stop to the “harassment” while the group has also launched its own “Stand up for SUARAM” campaign to garner public support. 

Dataran Merdeka has this year seen two rallies by civil society - the April 28 sit-in protest for elections reform by the Bersih 2.0 movement and the Janji Demokrasi pre-Independence Day rally. 

Unhappiness over environmental issues such as the Lynas rare earth plant in Kuantan has also prompted rallies. 

Najib recently wrote to young voters in Selangor, asking them to consider if a “confrontational” approach would be the best way to solve problems and push for reforms. 

His administration had passed the Peaceful Assembly Act earlier this year, a legislation which is said to allow freedom of assembly in accordance with “international norms”. 

Barisan Nasional (BN) insiders have said that several recent surveys show that the coalition needs to work harder to get a convincing victory in the coming polls especially with some 2.2 million voters casting ballots for the first time. The next general election is only due after April 2013 when BN’s mandate expires. 

It is understood that the compilation of surveys had revealed that BN could win up to 146 parliamentary seats with at least 80 sure wins, more than the 140 won in Election 2008. 

Najib’s approval rating from the Chinese and Indian communities had slipped after the government’s highly-criticised clampdown on the April 28 Bersih 3.0 rally although the latest survey by pollster Merdeka Center showed the leader’s percentage points climb to 69 per cent, largely due to a surge of support from poorer Malaysians.