Monday, November 06, 2006

A Cautionary Tale (2)

Editor’s Note: This article in a different form was first published a years ago. It is being reprinted since it seems even more pertinent.

Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA) was enacted in 1960 during the “Emergency,” the communist insurgency that engulfed the newly independent country in the 1950s and 1960s. That rebellion petered out long ago, but the law is still on the books, proof that “emergency” measures tend to linger long after the emergency has passed because they are useful to the authorities.

Originally aimed at communist insurgents, the Internal Security Act, which provides for unlimited detention without trial, has been used against all kinds of “security” threats, even common criminals, like forgers, and against political activists, student leaders, union bosses and journalists, anyone who challenges authority

Malaysia’s experience is a cautionary tale for the U.S., since, in the wake of the terrorist attack on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has been moving stealthily toward its own version of detention without trial, an internal security act in everything but name.

Last month Congress passed and the president signed the Military Commissions Act. It allows unlimited detention without trial to anyone, foreigner or U.S. citizen, whom the president declares to be an enemy combatant.

Since 1960 more than 3,500 Malaysians have been held under the law that permits detention for up to two years without trial and allows the Home Minister to renew the detention order indefinitely. One detainee, Loh Meng Liong, was held for 16 years before he was freed in 1982. There is no maximum limit.

The Malaysian experience also demonstrates that torture and unlimited detention go hand in hand. Former ISA detainee Tian Chua, who is now information chief for the opposition New Justice Party, recalled at a recent gathering of former detainees, “We were routinely tortured during interrogations, stripped naked, beaten with broomsticks and threatened with rape.”

Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was detained under the ISA as late as 1998 for opposing Mahathir Mohamad. He was later tried in court, convicted of sodomy and corruption and served six years in jail until his released last year. Ironically, he had been detained under the ISA as a young politician, protesting treatment of peasants.

The September 11 attacks on the U.S. gave the ISA a fresh lease on life since it provided former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad justification for more arrests. About 100 members of the banned Jemaah Islamiah organization, which is believe to have inspired, if not directed the October, 2002, Bali bombings, were detained under the act.

Washington used to regularly condemn Malaysia’s (and Singapore’s) use of the unlimited detention as a violation of human rights. One doesn’t hear Washington complaining so much these days. Wonder why. Shortly after the terror attacks, President George W. Bush thanked Mahathir for Malaysia’s efforts against terrorism. .

Ironically, this month the government of communist Vietnam – let’s repeat that, communist Vietnam – said it had decided to repeal “administrative detention decree 31/CP” which allows for detention without trial for up to two years in the name of national security.

Hanoi evidently felt a need to burnish its human rights credentials because it is hosting the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. President George W Bush is attending. The irony would border on the absurd if Bush were to praise Vietnam for abolishing something akin to what he just signed into law.

Malaysia is not Vietnam. It is a functioning democracy, which is, in many ways, a model for a moderate Muslim-majority state. We should be so lucky if Iraq turned out to be half as stable, prosperous and democratic as Malaysia is today. That’s why Malaysia’s experience is pertinent to the U.S. today.


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