Backsliding in Burma and Malaysia?

Troubling signs call into question recent reforms in Burma and Malaysia. Luke Hunt explains.

Malaysia and Burma remain poles apart in most aspects of life—religion, ethnicity, and politics—but where they seem more akin in recent times has been in trying to improve relations with the West while introducing much needed reforms at home.

Those reforms have been welcomed by the people of both countries and the international community but it remains a difficult process with Malaysia again raising fears of a revival of media oppression and Burma living up to its past with the detention of  political activists.

Reporters San Frontiers (RSF) said it was disturbed to learn that the well-known Malaysian blogger Syed Abdullah Hussein Al-Attas is being held under the Official Secrets Act following complaints by 30 people about controversial posts which were apparently unflattering about the Sultan of Johor.

Another woman, who was with him, is also being held.

The posts about the Crown Prince of Johor Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim have been described as provocative, insulting and seditious. There were also claims that confidential documents were posted by Syed Abdullah, whose followers say he enjoys paranormal powers.

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“Syed Abdullah’s arrest is unacceptable,” RSF said. “Why was the complaint filed by 30 people and not the person targeted in the posts? Why did the authorities think it was necessary to detain two people because of what appears in reality to be nothing more than an ordinary defamation suit?”

In Burma, the arrests came near the 50th anniversary of the July 7, 1962, military crackdown against students, ordered by Gen Ne Win. The generals had seized power four months earlier and on July 8, the army blew up the student union building in Rangoon University.

The final death toll was not known but dozens of students were believed to have perished.

Activists said the detentions over the weekend were proof that the country’s government remains a repressive regime despite the widely praised reforms augmented by President Thein Sein.

The students were freed with authorities saying the arrests followed a “misunderstanding” but this simply indicated they should never have been detained in the first place.

Unfair and wrongful arrests remain an issue across the 10-members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their strictly observed policy of non-interference in a neighbor’s affairs ensures any international response to this type of detention is limited.

But as ASEAN continues to open its borders and markets in anticipation of a fully integrated economic community by 2015 numbering half-a-billion people, such arrests should raise alarm bells across a region that hopes to be seen as genuine force to be respected and reckoned with on the international political stage.