Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Remembering those still not free - - about Ops Lallang 1987 - ISA Arrests and Detentions

Remembering those still not free
David Anthony
Oct 22, 07 12:27pm

From late afternoon on Oct 27, 1987 and well into the night, operatives of the Special Branch moved like snakes in the grass.

They knocked on doors and took people away in unmarked cars. More than 90 people were arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA), although the official figure was 63.

Section 73(1) of the ISA empowers the police to detain a person for up to 60 days without a detention order. The detention can be extended by the home minister. The police can use this power without providing reasons.

The act was enforced in 1960. That year, it was used against 20 members of the Socialist Front and two years later, against 50 people.

The government has since been invoking the ISA at the drop of a hat whenever convenient

  • On Nov 26, 1966, it arrested 70 people from various opposition parties in connection with alleged links with the Communist Party of Malaya.

  • On Aug 5, 1969, the largest number of detentions took place, involving 117 people from Badak and Sintok near the Thai-Malaysia border.

  • On Nov 19, 1985, the ISA was used on 36 alleged Muslim extremists under the leadership of Ibrahim Libya in Kampung Memali, Baling, Kedah.

We have gone to great lengths to obliterate vestiges of British colonialism like renaming roads named after prominent Englishmen, but we have religiously maintained the draconian British legacy of the ISA.

In October 1987, those arrested were members of opposition parties, United Chinese School Committees Association, NGOs and consumer associations, as well as university lecturers, church workers, social workers and environmentalists. To show a semblance of impartiality, some members of the ruling coalition were also picked up.

Why was there such a sudden swoop? The reason given by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad was to defuse racial tension that had reached a dangerous level. He blamed the politicians from opposition parties, individuals, newspapers and magazines for creating racial and religious tension. He said he had to take immediate steps to prevent riots and save the country from disaster.

He, however, failed to mention members of his own government who bore much of the responsibility for the escalation in racial tension. Analysts began to see the crackdown less as a means of defusing tension and more the result of the prime minister’s concern over the steady erosion of his authority.

Looking back

Was the situation as volatile as it was made out to be? Let’s look back a little at some significant events of 1987 that led up to the October crackdown.

In April, Mahathir (left) won the Umno presidency by a narrow margin. There was a split right down the middle of the party - Team A under Mahathir and his supporters and Team B under Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah (right) who was supported by the heavyweights like Musa Hitam and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

In May, the pledge to the Rukunegara was made mandatory in schools. This was opposed by the Chinese community.

On June 12, Umno members filed a suit to nullify the April party elections. The prime minister’s position was approaching check-mate status.

That month, tribal leaders from Sarawak approached federal authorities to seek recognition of their rights to their ancestral lands.

In July there was protest against Universiti Malaya’s decision to teach all optional courses in the Malay language.

In August, a Supreme Court injunction restrained United Engineers Malaysia over a road contract. Some highly-placed people were involved.

In September, following mass demonstrations, there was a high court injunction to stop Asian Rare Earth from dumping radio-active waste. The local business community and Japan were involved.

The same month, PAS accused Christians of proselytising among Malays. The prime minister’s office blamed Christian missionaries. Also in September, Sarawak Minister for the Environment James Wong was asked to resign for having vested interests in logging concessions.

When October came around there was protest by the Dong Jiao Zhong at a Chinese temple against the appointment of non-Mandarin speaking teachers in Chinese primary schools.

This was followed by a Umno Youth rally urging the government not to yield to Chinese protests. Umno then announced it would hold a mammoth rally on Nov 1 - and Operation Lalang soon got underway.

Newspapers worked overtime to splash headlines of the arrests. The Star produced two editions on Oct 28 - shortly after, the printing licences of three dailies, The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan were revoked.

Private radio and televisions stations were issued warnings and Radio Television Malaysia rescheduled programmes to broadcast specially crafted programmes called Cabaran.

Malay dailies Berita Harian and Utusan Malaysia justified government action in their editorials and the Tamil dailies Thinamani and Tamil Nesan lauded the move in order to save their own skins.

Share prices fell across the board on the KLSE with blue chips and quality stocks suffering double-digit losses. The KLSE Composite Index dropped 30.30 points to close at 236.74 from 267.04 on the morning after the arrests began.

Denial of freedom

Against this backdrop, questions were being asked about the Barisan Nasional spirit. Component parties MCA and Gerakan alleged that the government was going against the coalition’s manifesto of the previous general election.

The problem was that the component parties were all seeing the spirit through the lens of race-based parties.

The Bar Council appealed to all political parties to place the interests of the nation before their political and sectarian interests. It deplored the arrests as an “extremely serious matter” and promised to closely monitor the situation and consider steps to seek the early release of those detained.

Seventeen social interest and professional groups called for the setting up of a National Consultative Council on Ethnic Relations, with powers to make recommendations to Parliament.

Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first prime minister, condemned the arrests in a statement: “This is undemocratic and I deplore the attitude of the prime minister. It portends ill for the future of the country.”

Three exco members of Umno Youth were among those detained - their leader Najib Abdul Razak went to see the prime minister. He came out of the meeting, giving the premier’s action his undivided support.

Anwar Ibrahim, then the education minister, praised Mahathir for his “no nonsense” speech in Parliament adding that “it showed the Prime Minister meant business”. He echoed his boss’s reasons saying that groups had betrayed the trust placed in them and “There can be no compromise on national security”.

On Oct 29, the government indefinitely banned all rallies indoors and outdoors, including the mammoth Umno unity rally expected to gather 500,000 Malays on Nov 1. That was indeed a prudent move.

The detainees were psychologically and physically tortured and interrogated without sleep and held in solitary confinement. Family visits were denied until after the first week, but some would only receive visitors after a fortnight.

Several detainees were released at the end of 60 days, while others were kept at the detention centre in Kamunting for two years. They have since left the camp, but others have taken their place.

Issues rise and issues fall
Like the waves in the sea
The current under the water
We must dive deep to see
Malaysians have a short-lived memory
Tall grass has grown this twentieth anniversary
Let us remember those still not free.

DAVID ANTHONY is a freelance writer.

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