Cracks show in civil society as activists differ over Dr M’s ‘Citizens’ Declaration’

On Friday, old enemies in politics and human rights activists banded with Tun Dr Mahathir (pic) to push for Datuk Seri Najib Razak to be replaced. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng
On Friday, old enemies in politics and human rights activists banded with Tun Dr Mahathir (pic) to push for Datuk Seri Najib Razak to be replaced. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 ― Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s “Citizens’ Declaration” may have made strange bedfellows of old political enemies from Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition but civil society does not appear entirely united in their support for the initiative.

The rights groups and activists who signed the declaration have said they were willing to put aside old hostilities to align themselves with Dr Mahathir for the sake of removing Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak from office.

Some activists, however, have rejected the declaration and sounded warning bells over the consequences of pairing up with a leader they hold responsible for the very system of governance they want changed.

In opposing the alliance with Dr Mahathir, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) adviser Kua Kia Soong said those who have now become the former prime minister’s “apologists” are trying to create the delusion that “born again democrats” can have their records wiped clean just by denouncing the current prime minister.

According to Kua, Dr Mahathir’s only interest today is to remove Najib from power while still maintaining Umno and BN’s rule in Malaysia.

Gayathry Venkiteswaran, an activist who formerly served as executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance and the Centre for Independent Journalism, listed in a Facebook posting several reasons why she rejects the declaration including, among others, its failure to hold Dr Mahathir accountable for his past actions; its apparent lack of citizens’ input; and that Umno appears to be its main beneficiary.

For activists like National Human Rights Society (Hakam) chairman Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan and Bersih 2.0 chairman Maria Chin Abdullah, however, the declaration calling for Najib’s removal represents the first step towards implementing institutional reforms.

Ambiga said that while she understands public concerns about forming an alliance with Dr Mahathir, the immediate priority for political parties and groups who signed the declaration was to stop the country's slide into “autocracy and ruin” by pushing for the removal of the prime minister.

“Every step will be a battle. Nothing will be easy. But they are steps we must take with every legal means at our disposal.

“Institutional reform is in the declaration. There will be no compromise on that. But first, let's stop the hemorrhaging!” she told Malay Mail Online when contacted.

“And let me say that civil society in Malaysia is vibrant and vocal. We have disagreed before. The debate is healthy. We will emerge stronger,” Ambiga added, saying that difference of opinions within civil society was not unusual.

Chin, on the other hand, stressed that civil rights groups including Suaram were briefed about the declaration a day before the signing, and that the group had no issue with activists signing the declaration on their personal capacity.

“If he (Kua) says there was no consultation, there was. Institutional reform were added in by us from civil society… Otherwise I would not have signed,” she told Malay Mail Online.

Chin conceded that there were legitimate points raised by Suaram, but added that forging allies is a way to move forward with plans for institutional reform.

“Criticising and not offering solution is not an option for me. I am clear that the declaration is only pieces of paper. It's only the rakyat who can make it come to life.

“Yes it (the declaration) is rushed and we wished to have more time but it's done. What is important is the people's support as only through them and people’s power can we move the change agenda forward. Forming allies is also part of how we can move forward and this is for the nation,” she said.

She added that Bersih 2.0 is planning nationwide town hall meetings to garner more public support for the declaration.

“We have to take the change step by step. Am I confident it will come? No, not automatically - the people’s support and getting them to mobilise as a force will force this to happen,” she added.

On Friday, old enemies in politics and human rights activists banded with Dr Mahathir to push for Najib to be replaced.

The Citizens’ Declaration” had 58 signatories, comprising BN veterans, opposition politicians and civil society leaders Like Maria, Ambiga and Hishamuddin Rais.

The declaration expressed concern over the controversies surrounding state investment firm 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and the RM2.6 billion deposited in Najib’s personal accounts.

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