Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why is the Vatican Welcoming Malaysia?

In the light of recent reports about diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Malaysia, this letter is essential reading for those concerned about human rights abuses.

Your Holiness

Re: Recent Political and Social Developments in Malaysia: Towards a More Comprehensive Understanding of the Realities in Malaysia

We are a group of Catholics and some from other Christian denominations in Malaysia. Malaysia, a Muslim-dominant country has a population of 28 million people with 2.2 million registered as Christians, of whom an estimated 850,000 are Catholics.
We write to you with regards to our prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s official visit to the Vatican on July 19, 2011. We are anxious about recent developments concerning questions of democratic rights and religious freedom in Malaysia. In our letter we highlight these issues in order to help Your Holiness understand more critically and comprehensively the political and social realities in our country lest you are presented with a one-sided view of developments in Malaysia.

A watershed
The Malaysian media has reported that the visit of our prime minister to the Vatican is a ‘watershed’ that foreshadows the establishment of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and the Holy See.

We believe that the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Malaysia is a good step forward; after all, Malaysia is one of only 17 countries in the world that does not yet have diplomatic ties with the Holy See. Our concern is that of the timing in establishing these ties, on which we elaborate below.

Christian-Muslim dialogue
Church sources in Malaysia inform us that the visit also has to do with the Holy Father’s desire to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue, an initiative that you wisely began to undertake beginning from 2005, shortly after you assumed the papacy. It might be that you find this sixth prime minister of Malaysia an attractive dialogue partner given that he goes around the globe promoting himself as the leader of a moderate Muslim country made up of various ethnic groups. As well, he has called for the formation of a ‘Global Movement of the Moderates’ and that it ought to take centre stage in the international arena.

We believe that there are lessons that one can draw from the Malaysian experience. For ordinary Malaysians of different races and faith are respectful of one another’s beliefs and customs, and have learnt to co-operate and live peacefully side-by-side. However, this is so in spite of the shameful conduct of some of our political leaders who have unabashedly manipulated ethno-religious sentiments all these years, and mobilized on ethno-religious grounds in order to stay in power.

Cakap tak serupa bikin
Indeed, the conduct of prime minister Najib and his Barisan Nasional (BN) government at home, at least recently, has been anything but moderate! In our Malaysian colloquialism, we might say of the prime minister that dia cakap tak serupa bikin, meaning that ‘he does not do what he preaches’, or that ‘he does not walk the talk’!

In this regard, we are very concerned about the timing of this official visit which follows immediately after recent repression of civil society groups which are fighting for clean and fair elections. We are also deeply concerned that some top leaders of this democratic initiative have been painted unjustly as ‘anti-Islam’ by the authorities without any basis whatsoever. Below we highlight a few recent events and episodes.

Najib’s heavy handed response to the Walk for Democracy
Just last week on July 9, 2011, there occurred the controversy-ridden ‘Walk for Democracy’ that was initiated by the coalition of 62 NGOs calling themselves Berish 2.0 (bersih meaning ‘clean’ in Malay, our national language). The coalition had wanted to hold a peaceful street walk in support of an 8-point program to institutionalize clean and fair elections. Numerous glaring incidences that have occurred in past elections as reported in the media, and recounted and confirmed in studies by major researchers, have indicated that Malaysia’s electoral system and the conduct of these elections have not been free and fair. Significantly, Malaysia has been ruled by a single party - the BN coalition dominated by Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) - since independence in 1957, more than 54 years ago!

It was on account of frustrations arising from these inadequacies in the electoral system that Bersih was formed. Among others, the respected Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, of which the Catholic church of Malaysia is a part, affirmed Bersih’s right to conduct this peaceful walk for what it considered ‘just demands’.

In deference to the king, who intervened to head off a potential confrontation between Bersih supporters and its extremist detractors including from UMNO Youths, Bersih opted to hold a rally in the Stadium Merdeka. Yet Najib’s BN government declared that Bersih was ‘an illegal organization’ and its proposal to hold the gathering in the Stadium was rejected by the authorities. On the eve of the gathering, a court order was obtained to ban 91 leaders of Bersih and the Opposition (and also those from anti-Bersih groups) from entering those parts of Kuala Lumpur around Stadium Merdeka under threat of ‘arrest on sight’.

Earlier, Najib’s government had even banned the wearing of yellow Bersih T-shirts. The Bersih office was raided and six of their office workers were arrested. Bersih supporters who participated in ‘roadshows’ to publicise the upcoming event were also arrested. Six of them, also members of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia, were subsequently detained under the Emergency Ordinance (a Detention without Trial law) and are now held under solitary confinement. A leading lawyer has described these developments as signifying Malaysia’s descent into ‘a police state’.

In the event, the police came down hard on Bersih supporters who turned up for the gathering in Kuala Lumpur on July 9. The police set up road blocks and barb-wire fences manned by hundreds of policemen thus creating huge traffic jams throughout the city. To disperse the Bersih supporters, the police resorted to use of water cannons and fired tear gas into the crowd, as though the people were the enemy. A total of 1,667 people including 151 women and 16 children were arrested. What was singularly laudable was that there was no incidence of violence on the part of the tens of thousands of Bersih supporters who came from all ethnoreligious backgrounds.

Yet, prime minister Najib has claimed that the police had acted professionally, and condemned Bersih and the Opposition for tarnishing the image of the country. We urge you Holy Father and your Vatican officials to view the video clips that were taken of the goings-on. Significantly, the Bar Council of Malaysia has commented that the police had ‘used force excessively’.

Manipulating ethnoreligious sentiments
Tellingly, two days before the July 9 event, Najib had addressed a gathering of Malay silat (martial arts) exponents whence, reportedly, he suggested that the silat groups could be mobilized as a third line of defence against enemies from within and outside the country.
More than this, on July 2 in a gathering of about 20,000 people in the town of Kota Baru, Najib, in a live broadcast over Radio Malaysia, described Ambiga Sreenevasan, the chairperson of Bersih, as ‘a threat to Islam’ for the watching brief she held as the then president of the Bar Council in the Lina Joy case a few years earlier.

Freedom of religion
Lina Joy was a Muslim woman who converted to Catholicism before marrying a member of the faith. She filed against the Registration Department for registering her religion as ‘Islam’ in her MyKad (identity card) although she had converted out of the religion.
In spite of the dismissal of her case, it was popularly understood by many Malaysians, especially non-Muslims, that this was a violation of the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Federal Constitution. Najib’s labeling Ambiga as a threat toIslam is a deliberate distortion of her professional role as legal counsel in the Lina Joy case.

In the event, this Lina Joy case arises from a conflict between two legal jurisdictions – the civil law versus shariah - law that has emerged in Malaysia. In recent years, a number of cases involving the conversion of minors to Islam without the knowledge of the other spouse; the custody of children and/or the question of maintenance following the conversion to Islam of one spouse; the question of inheritance and even funeral arrangements following the death of a spouse who had purportedly converted to Islam without his family’s knowledge, have been highly controversial. In these cases, the non-Muslim litigants often found themselves helplessly trapped between or confined to only one of concurrent jurisdictions since they do not have locus standi in the shariah court.

Mention should also be made of the Court case between the Catholic church and the Malaysian government regarding the church’s use of the word Allah in the Catholic weekly The Herald. The government had ruled that the word Allah should be confined to use among Muslims only. At this point, a final decision has yet to be made by the Court.

Related to the above was the controversy over the importation and distribution of the Malay bibles which contained the word Allah. One shipment of these Bibles was held back by the Home Ministry authorities for several years and the matter was taken to Court. Although the Bibles were released in early 2011, unnecessary conditions have been imposed on their importation into peninsula Malaysia, to the dissatisfaction of Christians.

We highlight these episodes to you Holy Father because you have made the defense of the freedom of religion an important plank of your papacy.

Visiting the Vatican to stay in power?
Finally, there is concern among us that Najib is also reaching out to the Holy See at this juncture in order to secure popular support in the forthcoming general election due early 2013. In the previous 2008 election, the multiracial, multireligious Opposition coalition in Malaysia performed very well and succeeded in denying the BN government a two-thirds’ majority in parliament (which had previously allowed the BN government to freely amend the Federal Constitution at will). The Opposition coalition also won an unprecedented 5 out of the 13 state governments. In fact, the BN government lost the popular vote to the Opposition in peninsula Malaysia.

The reason why the BN was returned to power in the 2008 election was because it had secured virtually all the parliamentary seats in the states of Sabah and Sarawak located on the island of Borneo. In other words, the victory of the BN (as well as for the Opposition) in the upcoming election will depend on how well it performs in those two states.

In this regard, it is significant to note that Christians constituted 43% of the population in Sarawak in 2000, and 28% of the population in Sabah as recorded in the 2000 Census. We are suspicious that this official visit by Najib and his BN colleagues to the Holy See will be used by the BN leaders politically i.e. to secure votes for the BN from the Christians in Sabah and Sarawak. It is not inconceivable that photographs of Najib standing alongside the Holy Father will be widely distributed throughout the two states, particularly in the rural areas where the Christian indigenous people predominate, in the run-up to the next election.

It is with the concerns described above that we submit this letter to you Holy Father.
  • While we welcome the establishment of diplomatic relations between our country Malaysia and the Holy See, and we do believe that Malaysia’s experience in inter-religious living and cooperation has lessons to offer to other multireligious multiethnic societies, nonetheless, we are wary about the timing of this visit by prime minister Najib to the Vatican.
  • We are concerned that foreign governments and leaders who host him in his travels might be influenced by his pronouncements which extol the spirit of moderation, whereas in fact his government has used unnecessarily excessive force time and time again, the latest being its undemocratic treatment of civil society groups in Bersih’s Walk for Democracy episode.
  • We wish to highlight, too, how prime minister Najib and other BN leaders, in trying to stem the popular support for Bersih’s call for clean and fair elections, have manipulated ethnoreligious sentiments irresponsibly and attempted to demonise Bersih leaders as anti-Islam.
  • We also highlight how there have been curbs to freedom of religion in fact, although this fundamental human right is guaranteed in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia.
  • We are also suspicious that there is a hidden political agenda to win electoral support among the Christians of Sabah and Sarawak in this visit to the Vatican.
  • We pray therefore that the Holy See will consider these concerns seriously and be guided by the Holy Spirit in its dealings with the Malaysian government.
  
This letter has been endorsed by 330 Catholics and other Christians from throughout Malaysia.

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