West backs off as Mahathir cracks down
CNN Hong Kong
(CNN) -- Human rights groups have over the years leveled a litany of complaints against Malaysia's autocratic ruler of 20 years, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Among the charges: arbitrary arrest and detention without trial; abuse of police powers; eviction of urban settlers and plantation workers; racial vilification; denial of the freedom of expression, assembly and association; curtailing of women's, students' and workers' rights, and the list goes on.
Until recently, western governments have criticized Mahathir in concert with human rights organizations.
In particular, the jailing in 1998 of his former deputy prime minister and perceived political threat, Anwar Ibrahim, raised the ire of the west.
But since the events of September 11, the rhetoric pouring forth from democratic nations has all but ceased, and a diplomatic tone of tolerance and co-operation emerged in its place.
The political and social climate in Malaysia has certainly not improved in the eight months since terrorism came to dominate the global political agenda.
In fact, the introduction of the far reaching Internal Security Act (ISA) has given Mahathir's ruling Malay-dominated UMNO government even greater powers.
Touted by the government as a crucial weapon in the fight against terrorism, critics say the ISA has been subverted for use as a tool to stifle political opposition.
U.S. President George W. Bush has offered warm praise to the long-serving Malaysian leader, commending him for his tough anti-terrorism stance since September 11.
But in thanking him for rounding up suspected Islamic militants -- 50 of whom are still imprisoned without trial or legal representation -- Bush has refrained from challenging Mahthir over issues the United States has in the past been very vocal about.
Executive director of Malaysian human rights society Suaram Cynthia Gabriel told CNN that focusing international attention on the "deteriorating human rights situation" was proving tougher than ever.
"The situation in Malaysia is currently very bad and the already blemished record of Mahathir has been on the downslide since September 11," said Gabriel.
"September 11 has given Mahathir the added incentive to exercise greater control and at the same time legitimize his actions. We are very concerned about the use of ISA and the clampdown on freedom of expression, freedom of association and free speech," Gabriel told CNN from Kuala Lumpur.
Claims the stringent security measures -- which include limiting public assembly to four persons and detention without trial -- are a necessary response to the extreme threats presented by global terror organizations are rejected by Suaram.
"Malaysia is one country where there are an armoury of laws to deal with the threat posed by suspected terrorists. There is no need for these draconian laws," she said.
"While Mahathir courts the international community with his stance against terror, the continued and worsening suppression of democracy and freedom of speech is being ignored."
Mahathir's tenuous adherence to democracy appears unlikely to intensify in the immediate future.
During his Washington visit, he told U.S. Congress that democracy "is only a means, and not an end in itself."
"The West is very impatient. You want an overnight change," Mahathir said.
"Sudden change, even if it is for the good, is disruptive. Democracy for people who are not used to it can undermine stability, resulting in war even."
"It is the good life that democracy brings that counts, not democracy per se."
His political rivals see it differently.
"Like no other leader before him, Mahathir has emasculated the leading institutions of democratic governance, including the judiciary, the media and the universities," said Dr Chandra Muzzafar, a political scientist and deputy president of Malaysia's opposition National Justice Party.
"All those things are crucial to the growth of the democratic process."
The international community must reconcile its fight against terrorism with the basic freedoms of the Malaysian people, says Suaram's Gabriel.
"Our call to the international community is to recognize that combating terrorism does not rely upon further suppressing human rights."
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