Malaysia has arrested a string of opposition politicians and social activists over the past few days in connection with a massive anti-government rally against an unpopular new tax in the nation’s capital.
An estimated 10,000 people turned out for the May Day rally in Kuala Lumpur on Friday. The rally, which was held on International Worker’s Day, was mainly directed at opposing the new goods and services tax (GST) launched by Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government on April 1. Opponents view the six-percent tax as causing an increase in the cost of living and a burden to lower-income groups, despite the government’s insistence that part of the revenue accrued from the much-needed measure would go back to the poor in the form of cash handouts.
More than two dozen people were arrested following the protests on May 1. Among those reported arrested were several youths as well as Ambiga Sreenevasan, a human rights activist and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, the chief of the Socialist Party of Malaysia, and a senior lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP). While most of those arrested were released quite quickly, investigations against them are still ongoing. Local media reports suggest the crackdown has continued on, with People’s Justice Party secretary-general Rafizi Ramli arrested on May 2 and Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party deputy president Mohamad Sabu arrested May 4. A research aide of DAP lawmaker Charles Santiago was also summoned by authorities for questioning on Monday.
“This wave of arrests should raise alarm bells among international friends of Malaysia about just how far the powers that be in Putrajaya are dragging the country off the path of democratic, rights-respecting governance,” Phil Robertson, the deputy director for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The election reform group Bersih 2.0 also issued a strongly-worded statement against the government condemning the arrests over the weekend.
“Bersih 2.0 warns the Najib administration that it will only face greater public wrath if it chooses to persecute protesters in the May Day protest yesterday, rather than listening to the widespread anger of Malaysians against the GST,” the group said.
“A leader lacking legitimacy, Najib should therefore humbly accept that the May Day protest was a peaceful and orderly protest of Malaysians demanding the cancellation of GST,” it added, reminding the government that its loss of the popular vote in the country’s last national election in 2013 meant it was only a minority government.
As The Diplomat has reported previously, Malaysia has seen a wave of arrests of government critics in recent months under the Sedition Act. Opposition figures and human rights groups have criticized this as a bid by the ruling party to silence its adversaries amid Prime Minister Najib’s dwindling popularity.