The response of the Malaysian government to the recent protests in Kuala Lampur raises several concerns, not the least of which is whether it will be followed by retaliatory arrests of political opponents. The announcement of a further inquiry on the part of Suhakam, a human rights commission with a semi-official imprimatur from the government, is certainly welcome at getting to the bottom of police overreaction - though it may have the effect of stoking tensions:
At a press conference on Thursday, Malaysia’s Human Rights Commission, better known by its Malay abbreviation Suhakam, announced it will hold a public inquiry into the allegations. During the rally, organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, protester Baharuddin Ahmad collapsed and died of a heart attack, and other participants said the police were too aggressive in their use of tear gas and in detaining more than 1,600 people temporarily.
“Suhakam feels that in view of the number of complaints on excessive use of force, the incidents of tear gas, the death of Baharuddin Ahmad and the denial of access to lawyers, various violations of human rights could have happened,” said Suhakam Vice Chairman Khaw Lake Tee. The group said in a statement that further details of the inquiry would be announced in two weeks’ time.
Police Deputy Director of Management (Public Relations) and Assistant Commissioner Ramli Mohamed Yoosuf said the police cannot comment in advance of the report. Malaysian authorities have previously said they believe Baharuddin Ahmad died of natural causes unrelated to the rally, and that police used the minimum force necessary to subdue demonstrators they believed were threatening public order.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has talked a good game when it comes to the importance of elevating moderate governance within the Muslim world, and I've written in the past about the significance of building on our Southeast Asian Islamic alliances (getting beyond viewing the Muslim world as the Arab world, and only that). But this is a significant test of whether he will also govern within his own nation as a moderate, and retain the authority to speak to these matters on the international stage.
Protest in Malaysia of this nature is a very rare thing, and it's likely the rarity of it which engendered an overreactive response from the police force. Najib's political opposition has explicitly compared him to Mubarak and Qaddafi - a false comparison, by any measure, when it comes to brutality and institutional oppression - and sought to foment a similar level of outrage among their followers. But there are institutional reasons why this is unlikely to take hold, not just attitudinal: as Jason Abbott, an expert on Asia and professor at the University of Louisville, pointed out recently, unemployment levels remain low in Malaysia compared to international averages (it hovers around 4%, according to most measures). As we all know, people are less likely to take to the streets in anger when they are gainfully employed.
Najib said in an interview with The Star earlier this year when asked about Tunisia and Egypt: "Don’t think that what is happening there must also happen in Malaysia. We will not allow it to happen here." The best way for him to achieve that goal is avoiding an overreactive post-Kuala Lampur crackdown, and pursuing policies that push economic growth out to a wider populace.