Malaysia saw ‘reversal’ in human rights after Perikatan came into power, says international watchdog

Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin leaves after holding a meeting with Perikatan Nasional leaders at the Hilton hotel in Kuala Lumpur November 1, 2020. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin leaves after holding a meeting with Perikatan Nasional leaders at the Hilton hotel in Kuala Lumpur November 1, 2020. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

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KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 14 — Malaysia has regressed in terms of human rights since the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government, led by prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, took over in March 2020, global watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its annual report.

The report released yesterday stated that the first nine months under the new coalition government showed alleged crackdown on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, threats against the media, discrimination against migrants, and retreat from genuine police accountability.

“Malaysia has undergone an incredible reversal of human rights in 2020 — all for the worst.

“Hopes for human rights reforms have never risen so fast in Malaysia nor collapsed so quickly.” its deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement.

The report stated that the downturn of media freedom was shown during Al Jazeera’s coverage of Malaysia’s treatment of migrants during Covid-19 pandemic back in July last year, with the authorities having probed the international media for sedition, defamation, and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act.

“Police questioned six Al Jazeera staff members and raided the organization’s offices in Kuala Lumpur. In August, Malaysia refused to renew the visas of two Al Jazeera journalists based in the country,” the report said.

HRW pointed out in its report that Malaysia’s effort to contain Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in discrimination of marginalised communities such as Rohingya Muslims, whose boats have been pushed back out to the sea, and overcrowded migrants in an unsanitary detention facilities prior to their deportation.

“The authorities pushed boatloads of desperate Rohingya refugees who were trying to reach Malaysia’s shores back out to sea, claiming that they were doing so to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“The authorities ultimately conducted multiple raids, ensnaring thousands of migrants and detaining them in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention centers to await deportation,” HRW said in its 761-page World Report 2021.

The global human rights group said that police abuse remains unjustified due to its lack of accountability after the PN government rejected the previous government’s bill on containing police misconducts and introduced a “toothless” Independent Police Conduct Commission bill that was short of investigative power and authorities to punish wrongdoings.

“In August, the government withdrew a Bill submitted by the prior administration to create an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission because the police objected to it.

“The government instead introduced a Bill to create a toothless Independent Police Conduct Commission that lacks both key investigative powers and the authority to punish wrongdoing,” the report said.

In another effort to curb Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia decided to close its schools while failing to provide equal access to the internet which has particularly affected rural and indigenous students, the report said.

HRW also highlighted the issues of religious freedom whereby Muslims are not allowed to practice other branches of Islam other than officially-recognised denomination of Sunni and deeming others deviants — pointing to the much-persecuted Ahmadiyyah community.

The report also said that Malaysia continues to punish the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people through federal law and state Shariah laws that prohibited both same-sex relations and non-normative gender expression, resulting in frequent arrests of transgender persons.

It also highlighted that activists have filed two court cases, in the High Court and the Federal Court, challenging the existence and use of these laws in Selangor.

“In July, the minister in charge of religious affairs gave ‘full licence’ to the religious authorities to take action against transgender people, both through arrests and religious education to ‘return’ them to the ‘right path’,” the report said.

In the report by HRW, it stated that Malaysia’s religious authorities lodged a report against Nicole Fong after she responded to the religious affairs minister’s statement by posting a series of infographics online critical of the mukhayyam program — a state-sponsored Islamic “rehabilitation” programme for Muslim LGBT persons.

In its report last year, HRW had said then that Malaysia remained slow in its reform agenda last year despite getting a new government in the form of Pakatan Harapan.

The delay in abolishing the Sedition Act and the use of other draconian security laws, continued gender discrimination and child marriages, asylum seekers being treated as illegal immigrants and crackdowns on Shiah Muslims clearly showed the government’s failure in improving human rights, the report said.

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