08/28/2015 12:17 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Malaysia Must Listen to What Protesters Have to Say, Not Attack Them

MOHD RASFAN via Getty Images

LONDON -- In April 2012 I was sitting in a small cafe in Kuala Lumpur, but I was not enjoying an afternoon tea. I was recovering from the tear gas Malaysian police had just fired at me and tens of thousands of other protesters in the capital. I had been at the scene of "Bersih 3.0," one of the largest political protests in Malaysia's history.

"Bersih" means clean in Malay, and the demonstrations had been organized to call for free and fair upcoming elections, and also a broad range of endemic human rights issues in the country.

Malaysian authorities have never taken kindly to being challenged, and the police response was swift and brutal. When a small group of protesters tried to break through barricades put up around Independence Square, police fired tear gas. Dozens of protesters were badly injured from police beatings.

But rather than holding police officers who had clearly used excessive force to account, the government arrested hundreds of protesters and many were later charged.

This Saturday there is a real risk that history will repeat itself.

This Saturday there is a real risk that history will repeat itself. Malaysian civil society is gearing up for another Bersih rally, mass protests that organizers hope will attract hundreds of thousands of Malaysians and widespread support and attention around the world.

The huge expected turnout is an indication of frustration with the Malaysian government. Since the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition narrowly clung on to power in the last general elections in May 2013, it has intensified a crackdown on opponents.

In particular, authorities are making use of the Sedition Act to harass and imprison critics. A colonial-era relic, this draconian law gives the government sweeping powers to crack down on freedom of expression and silence dissent. Prime Minister Najib Razak had pledged to repeal the law in 2012, but instead it has only been used more frequently. Over the past two years, scores of people have been arrested and charged with sedition. Dozens have been investigated, arrested or charged under the Sedition Act since the beginning of 2015.

Some of the casualties have been high profile -- opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was investigated for sedition in 2014, before he was eventually jailed on politically motivated sodomy charges in March of this year. Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known by his nom de plume "Zunar," whose satirical cartoons have been a thorn in the government's side for years, is also facing a long prison sentence on sedition charges. His "crime" was to send a series of tweets criticizing the Anwar Ibrahim verdict.

bersih 2012
A protester shouts slogans during a mass rally organized by Bersih 3.0 calling for electoral reform in Kuala Lumpur on April 28, 2012. Mohd Rasfan/AFP/GettyImages.

But scores of others have also been targeted, including lawyers, opposition politicians, human rights defenders and journalists. More recently, the authorities have used Section 124B of the Penal Code, a vague provision prohibiting "activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy" against critics. It is a chilling and far-reaching crackdown designed to scare those opposing the authorities into silence.

Authorities have continued the same scare tactics ahead of Saturday's demonstrations. The Home Ministry called Bersih 4.0 an illegal organization that is "spreading propaganda to incite the people. . . against the government," and urged people not to join the protests. On Tuesday, 16 students who had taken part in a sit-in protest outside parliament were arrested -- a clear signal to those planning to attend Saturday's rally.

Scores have been targeted, including lawyers, opposition politicians, human rights defenders and journalists.

Malaysian authorities must ensure that this weekend's protest is not a repeat of the one in 2012. The government has a duty to respect people's right to freedom of expression and to peacefully protest. A heavy-handed response by the authorities could sow the seeds of further resentment.

Instead, Malaysia's government should listen to what protesters actually have to say. The crackdown on opposition politicians and human rights defenders must end -- it is time for a new era of genuine respect for human rights in the country.

On Saturday, Amnesty International, along with the rest of the world, will be watching what happens on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, and how the security forces respond. We hope that history does not repeat itself.

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