When the police are not perceived as protectors but as human rights violators, then there's something terribly wrong with the country, notes Human Rights Watch Asia director Phil Robertson.
There are about 90,000 refugees in Malaysia and neighbouring Thailand hosts more than three million stateless people, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The majority of these refugees come from Myanmar.
Despite being the largest refugees receiving countries in Southeast Asia, neither country has ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention.
While both countries show up a list of human rights abuses, Malaysia appears to have overtaken Thailand in the “deterioration” index.
During a recent visit to Bangkok, FMT caught up with Human Rights Watch’s Asian division director Phil Robertson.
According to Robertson, Thailand enjoyed better freedom of expression than Malaysia.
“There is freedom of assembly here (Thailand) and there is a greater degree of tolerance here.
“The violence that occurred in April and May last year, while tragic, showed that the Thai government is willing to manage such an incident,” he said.
In comparison, the Malaysian government, he said, should find opportunities for its people to have their say.
“By doing so, the country will end up in a much more fulfilling democratic dialogue about democracy and rights in Malaysia.
“But the (Malaysian) government continues to treat its people like juveniles.
“And it’s only right that they (people) react with anger. Anyone who has raised a teenager will tell you that,” he said, alluding to the Hindraf protest earlier this month in Kuala Lumpur.
Last month, when Malaysian police refused to issue a permit for Hindraf’ Solidarity March Against Racism, Roberston had issued a widely carried statement which said that banning the march made a “mockery of the principles the government pledged to uphold” when it assumed its seat on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council.
Lack of understanding
According to Robertson, the first time Hindraf happened, the Malaysian government was “naturally caught by surprise”.
“The government didn’t understand what it was all about. But since then, the government has done everything it could to obstruct Hindraf’s growth.
“The difference now is that it’s a systematic clampdown showcasing government suppression.
“By doing so, the government has raised the cause for people to participate,” Roberston said, adding that it also meant that the government had racially profiled and targeted people which in itself is a violation of Malaysia’s commitment to the United Nations.
He said the clampdown and profiling showed a lack of confidence in the government in handling rallies.
“If the government says, ‘We are doing this to stop a riot’, then it must know there are other ways to do this.
“For one, talking to the relevant people would be a good start. Ask them about the kind of protest they plan to stage.
“It’s all about being a professional police force because (currently) their way of doing things is getting out of hand.
“There are so many violations of rights at this juncture – freedom of expression is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.
Robertson added that in one fell swoop, the Malaysian government had knocked down human rights standards.
“The Malaysian government isn’t respecting the Malaysian Federal Constitution, which was so well written, and thought out.
“It’s been put on a shelf and forgotten,” he said.
The other matter that bothers Robertson is the lack of police accountability.
“I am concerned about police accountability, the use of excessive force and torture while in police custody. Just like with Thailand, Malaysia needs to look into police reform.
When the police are not perceived as protectors but as human rights violators, you know there’s something terribly wrong with the country and those who govern it.
“It’s the migrant workers especially who see the ways of the police that many others don’t.
“Let’s take a look at this example. If I were shot dead today by the police, it’ll probably be big news, but the shooter will most likely get away with it.
“How many times has a police officer been brought to court for something connected to a death and custody case and found guilty?” asked Robertson.
He said that it was imperative to create an independent mechanism, which the police themselves will respect and adhere to.
On the issue of police and politicians, Robertson said both groups enjoyed a “symbiotic” relationship.
“There has always been and will continue to be a symbiotic relationship between politicians and the police.
“Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam – and all across Asia – it’s the same,” he said.
Freedom of the media
Robertson also addressed the issue of media freedom in Malaysia.
He said that Malaysia should “break the lock” on the Printing and Publications Act before any true freedom of the press could be savoured.
The Malaysian government, he said, must understand that the law can be crafted for this purpose accordingly.
“Preventive detention has created a culture of undermining professional police work. If you’re going to charge someone with something, you better be able to show proof of the offence.
“Accusing and detaining under duress is a draconian act at best.
“Even bloggers and online news portals are not spared,” he said, citing the arrest and charging of popular “Thai People” (Prachathai) website administrator.
Chiranuch Premchaiporn, known by her online handle Jiew, is being charged with defamation of the Thai royal family.
A similar case was also seen in Malaysia. In January last year, Khairul Nizam Abdul Ghani, a freelance computer technician, was charged with insulting the late Johor Sultan in his blog.
According to Roberston, everyone should realise that fighting for accountability and human rights isn’t easy.
“There were many people who are doing something to make things better. We are looking for sunshine in dark corners,” he said. - FMT