Arrested for Possession of an Unlit Candle

08/04/2010 11:30 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"You can blow out a candle, but you can't blow out the fire." --Peter Gabriel

"This is the first time I've seen the back of a police van," Tshiung Han See tweets.

He is sitting on a rickety rear bench seat with four of the thirty-seven other people arrested without cause on August 1, 2010, the fiftieth anniversary of Malaysia's Internal Security Act--an Act that, like the Patriot Act here in the US, allows for arrest and detention without trial of any individuals deemed to constitute a security risk for the State. The men have been separated from the women, and all of them are being taken to Petaling Jaya Police Station for 'questioning.'

But Han has his cell phone.

"Arrested for possession of an unlit candle," he writes--and I, sitting in a cafe on literally the other side of the world, watch the words blink to the top of my computer screen.

Han was, in fact, arrested for holding a candle. The Abolish ISA Movement (known by its Malay-language acronym GMI) organized a series of candlelight vigils to honor the more than 10,000 individuals detained under the ISA since its inception.

These vigils--held across the nation in urban centers like Petaling Jaya, Kelantan, Johor Baru, Penang, and Negeri Sembilan--quickly drew the attention of law enforcement.

In PJ, somewhere between eighty and one hundred officers were dispatched to manage a crowd of just over two hundred people. Eyewitnesses reported riot police beating the protestors and chasing stragglers into a nearby mall. In Penang, participants gathered in Speaker's Square--a common area established expressly for citizens to assemble and voice their concerns, only to be told that "Here at...Speaker's Square, we do not allow issues against any laws in the country" by the Georgetown Police.

The irony of my reading, over a leisurely morning cup of coffee, a live account of a "Security" crackdown as it happened was not lost on me. It highlights not only the degree to which laws like the Internal Security Act (passed in 1960 to deter Communist rebels during the Malayan Emergency) are outmoded, but also the degree to which the institutions charged with implementing them are ill-equipped.

"Still waiting for the police to record our statements," Han is telling me via Facebook. "None of us have been searched yet. One kid was lead away in a sleeper hold by a plainclothes policeman. His eyes were fluttering from oxygen deprivation."

Han and the other detainees, including GMI leader Syed Ibrahim, were eventually released on August 2nd after a 'questioning' process that mostly involved standing in a series of queues. I asked Han to talk a little more about his time at the police station, and his general sense was very few people on either side understood why the arrests were happening.

"The last thing we had to do before we left the compound," he explains, "was photocopy my Identity Card and the receipt. The officer had no idea how to use the photocopier. At one point there were 4 officers trying to solve the problem of the photocopier. This was the first time they had been ever asked to photocopy something. I got the sense that 1) the police had no choice; and 2) that they advance in the organization by obeying orders."

"I had a brief conversation," he continues, "with a policeman who didn't understand the significance of the candles. I had to explain to him what a vigil was."

Han was hardly the only person broadcasting about the arrests as they happened. A YouTube video composed of stills from the PJ arrest went live, and blogger Pamela Lim set up a TweetCast from the scene.

"They are dispersing the crowd & I'm standing amongst the police taking videos!" she tweets.

Like the USA Patriot Act, the Malaysian ISA represents a clear violation of human rights. And efforts to silence dissent over the law prove increasingly embarrassing, as ordinary Malaysian citizens with access to rudimentary pieces of technology spread news of their discontent worldwide--almost literally beneath the police's noses.

"My Cabinet colleagues and I gave a solemn promise to Parliament and the nation that the immense powers given to the government under the ISA would never be used to stifle legitimate opposition and silence lawful dissent," said Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia's first Prime Minister.

Fifty years later, Malaysians are yearning to see that promise fulfilled.