However, the mass arrests of 41 supporters of Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees (including the wife of ISA detainee Shaari Shuib, Aliza Jaafar) in front of the Kamunting detention centre yesterday, the ISA arrest of student leaders, the threat to make the Universities and University Colleges Act even more draconian, and the unabandoned attempt to politicise the Dewan Tunku Chansellor (DTC) fire at the University of Malaya last month are ominous signs for the future of democracy and human rights in Mahathir’s third decade as Prime Minister.
Until last week in his 20 years as Prime Minister, the ISA had never been used against student activists even when it had been invoked in the 1987 Operation Lalang mass arrests against Opposition leaders and civil society dissent.
Now the ISA is being used blatantly to browbeat campus dissent, accompanied by the deplorable and disgraceful “public relations” (PR) exercise to politicise the DTC pre-dawn fire on June 29 to blame, demonise and isolate student activists for the “arson” of DTC although investigations by the separate authorities have unearthed no such evidence - in keeping with his threat in Parliament in early April when introducing the Third Outline Perspective Plan that the government was prepared to break “international norms” on human rights and democracy.
On Saturday, Mahathir made the startling statement that the “sabotage factor” for the DTC fire could not be ruled out - “Faktor perbuatan khianat masih tidak boleh diketepikan dalam kes kebakaran DTC” (Mingguan Malaysia 15.7.2001) - when he told the media that reports from three agencies, namely the Fire and Rescue Department, the police and the Chemistry Department, could not reach a consensus of the fire.
Mahathir said three things, viz:
There was no denial that the 33-page report of the Fire and Rescue Department cited a short-circuit and overloading at the 35-year-old building as the probable causes for the DTC fire.
The Prime Minister should clarify which agency had posited that arson was a probable cause of the blaze and the evidence for such a finding.
If none of the three agencies had given arson as a probable cause of the DTC fire, it is most irresponsible for the Prime Minister to declare that student sabotage was still a possibility without making clear it was strictly his personal view. Mahathir should clarify how he could be satisfied that the DTC was not caused by “student sabotage’ - whether he wants all student activists to make a declaration that they were not involved?
While it is politically convenient to keep alive the “arson” and “sabotage” theory for the DTC fire, when there is no iota evidence nor backed up by any of the three investigating agencies, as this will allow the authorities to create a panic atmosphere that the compuses have become a “hot-bed” of “militant anti-government” student activists out to bring down the elected government by force and thus justify a high-handed government crackdown against student dissent and activists in the universities, this is a grave disservice to human rights, democracy and the truth.
The three investigation reports by the Fire and Rescue Department, the police and the Chemistry Department should be immediately made public so that Malaysians can judge for themselves the outcome of these investigations and whether the government had over-reacted in its crackdown against student activists, using the ISA against student leaders and threatening to tighten the screws against student activism further.
The DTC fire should not be politicised any further by UMNO politicians using it to blame, demonise and isolate student activists who are not prepared to be recruited to become UMNO cheerleaders and henchmen in the campuses and further afield, as a justification for a broader crackdown against human rights and democracy in general in the third decade Mahathir’s Prime Ministership.