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Ops Lalang: The worst assault on M'sian civil society

Kua Kia Soong  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | As with the pattern of ISA detentions under the Alliance and then the BN government, the mass arrests and detentions without trial of innocent Malaysian dissidents in 1987 was an attempt to create a climate of terror as a backdrop for Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s other agenda.

It was the prelude to the sacking of the lord president Salleh Abas and the suspension of five Supreme Court judges, who were about to judge the case brought up by Team B of Umno challenging the party election results.

Geoffrey Robertson, a leading UK barrister said of the sacking that “the Tribunal Report recommending the sacking of Tun Salleh Abas (photo) is among the most despicable documents in modern legal history.”

The reality was that if the highest court in the land had judged in favour of Team B in 1988, it would have been the end of Mahathir’s tenure as prime minister. Thus survival was Mahathir’s main agenda, and we the victims of Operasi Lalang were just the pawns in his game.

Did the human rights of innocent Malaysians matter to him? Does he need to apologise and show remorse now that he claims to have seen the light and become a born-again democrat?

Harapan leaders held Dr M responsible for Operasi Lalang

This was the declaration by all the Ops Lalang detainees including myself, Karpal Singh and the other Pakatan Harapan leaders today on the first anniversary of their detention in 1988:

“The year since this dastardly Operation Lalang has been an outrage for all freedom-loving and democratic-minded Malaysians. The Mahathir administration has made even more brutal attacks on the democratic institutions in this country.

“The doctrine of separation of powers has been dealt a serious blow by the threats to the judiciary not only through legislative changes but also by the scandalous suspension of five Supreme Court judges as well as the lord president.

“The subsequent dismissal of the lord president and two of the judges demonstrated the depths to which the Mahathir administration is prepared to go to stay in power.

“Civil liberties have been further eroded by new changes to the law. It is quite clear, therefore, that this so-called Operation Lalang was a signal for calculated repression and intimidation of the Malaysian people and to divert attention from the irresolvable problems confronting the ruling party and coalition.”

Dr M cannot erase history

Mahathir cannot escape from the historical records in, among others, my “445 Days under Operation Lalang,” DAP’s “The Real Reason,” Carpa’s “Tangled Web,” Amnesty International’s “Operation Lalang: Detention Without Trial under ISA,” K Das and Suaram’s “The White Paper on the October Affair and the Why? Papers.”

And judging from the comments on the “Black October “affair by eminent persons both local and international, we can see clearly who they held responsible for this dastardly affair – it was certainly not the inspector-general of police!

In the words of Tunku Abdul Rahman himself:

“Umno was facing a break-up. Prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s hold on the party appeared critical when election rigging was alleged to have given him a very narrow victory over Tengku Razaleigh (photo).

“The case alleging irregularities brought by Umno members was pending in court. If the judgement went against him he would have no choice but to step down. So he had to find a way out of his predicament.

“A national crisis had to be created to bring Umno together as a united force to fight a common enemy – and the imaginary enemy in this case was the Chinese community…

“It’s a police state when you can go and arrest people at will without giving any reason other than they think they are a security risk. I do not concede Dr Mahathir’s contention that his measures are predicated solely on the extreme tension between Malays and Chinese last month which brought the country close to serious racial rioting...

“It's not a question of Chinese against the government but his own party, Umno who are against him.”

Tun Hussein Onn, Amnesty International, Inter-Parliamentary Union, International Commission of Jurists, Asiawatch, European Parliament, Australian parliamentarians,  Malaysian Bar Council – they all held then prime minister responsible for the detentions.

Closure on this dark episode in our history

What is an apology after all? We are not asking for compensation. Let me remind Mahathir that Malek Hussein was awarded RM2.5million as compensation for his ISA detention by a High Court judge. Multiply that a hundred times and it would still be insufficient to compensate some of us who were detained for more than a year.

An apology on this occasion is for Mahathir to declare his regret, remorse and sorrow for having inflicted pain and suffering on victims of Ops Lalang, the top-ranked judges of the judiciary and other democratic institutions in Malaysia.

For any closure on this dark episode in our history, and any hint of humility towards reparation, such an apology is vital to:

  • Document and confirm the facts surrounding what actually happened;
  • Specify the harm done to victims and their loved ones through Mahathir’s actions;
  • Highlight the ways in which democratic institutions and human rights were violated;
  • Demonstrate Mahathir’s acceptance of moral responsibility for what he did in 1987/88;
  • Express publicly Mahathir’s regret and apology for what was perpetrated on the victims; and
  • Demonstrate specifically what kind of reform Mahathir is now committed to.

The leaders of Harapan who insist that Mahathir does not need to apologise for his arrest and detention of more than a hundred innocent Malaysians in October 1987 do not seem to realise the consequences of their actions.

Now if Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak decides to step down in the light of the 1MDB scandal or after GE14, will the Harapan leaders then “forgive” him just like they have “forgiven” Mahathir?

If they think there is no need for Mahathir to say sorry, why does Najib have to say sorry if he decides to go? Why does Najib have to step down if he is charged with corruption since the Penang CM has not stepped down?

No impunity for kleptocrats

This is what I am getting at – in human rights, democracy and justice, miscreant autocrats and kleptocrats cannot get away with impunity. Impunity refers to the failure to bring perpetrators of human rights violations, rule of law flouters and the corrupt to justice and constitutes a denial of the victims' right to justice and redress.

Let us not forget that some of our elite did rather well under Mahathir – some got favoured contracts including legal contracts, others gained from his privatisation policies in all areas from energy to private higher education; some politicians who were not physically tortured under Ops Lalang actually wore their ISA detention as a badge of honour to boost their political careers. They might even want to thank Mahathir for his autocratic reign.

As one of these Harapan leaders has recently confessed: “Under Mahathir, we could hold our heads high, not like now under Najib…”

No, Mahathir may not owe these elite any apologies. But he certainly owes an apology not only to all the victims of Ops Lalang, but also to the former lord president and the Supreme Court judges that he sacked in 1988, and to the Malaysian rakyat for all the financial scandals since the 1980s that have cost the rakyat billions of ringgit.

Mahathir can be seen as the “Father of Crony Capitalism” in Malaysia. According to journalist Barry Wain, Mahathir squandered close to RM100 billion during his reign as prime minister.

The leader of the cpposition knows of these scandals more than anyone else in this country – during the 1980s, he called Mahathir’s privatisation of our national assets, “piratisation” which is a ruder word than “kleptocracy.”

This is not to mention the billions lost through the Proton fiasco and its costs to the environment and the failure of a public transport system in the country.

And don’t forget the RM5 billion arms deal that Mahathir signed with Margaret Thatcher in 1988 also led to allegations of “commissions” paid to Umno which led to the “arms for aid” and “buy British last” furore in 1994.

Sorry is all that he can’t say

Leaving all that aside - all we are asking for now is for Mahathir to say “sorry” for that dastardly deed in Oct 1987 when he took away so many days of our freedom (445 days of my life) and made us withstand torturous days. And he can’t even do that?

Sorry does seem to be the hardest word for some autocrats.

According to law professor Andrew Harding, “What Dr Mahathir has done in 1987 is to sacrifice, for the sake of a transitory, temporary and possibly illusory political advantage to himself and his supporters, the priceless asset of judicial independence…

“It is the Constitution, as the supreme law, entrusted to the judges, which is the best guarantee that the executive, once elected, will not act dictatorially.”

Thus, on this 30th anniversary of Operation Lalang,

  • We call on all Malaysians who cherish justice, human rights and the rule of law to demand the end to detention without trial and to restore the rule of law in Malaysia.
  • We demand a public apology and a sincere expression of remorse from Mahathir for depriving so many innocent Malaysians of their freedom and making them endure the torture of detention under Ops Lalang.
  • We call on the BN and Harapan to commit to setting up the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission and to ratify the UN Convention against Torture in the first 100 days after GE14. Suaram demands a thorough investigation into all allegations of torture and for the torturers to be accountable for their actions.

KUA KIA SOONG is Suaram adviser.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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