The State and its machinery must be made accountable for all unjustified violence, says Angeline Loh.
Justice for Beng Hock, Answers for Rakyat
There has been an upsurge of violence this year (2012), inside and outside our beloved nation. Most of it ensuing from uniformed units of government security forces. Most of it apparently directed against ordinary unarmed civilians and citizens of the state. State violence has escalated. It is time to recognise this institutionalised violence that stalks all living under the jurisdiction of the state and its justice machinery.
Institutional violence is always justified by the right of self-defence and protection of national security, but often lacks the crucial element of accountability. State violence continues in many countries nurturing a culture of impunity with the aid of state machinery, legalising acts that would otherwise be crimes of violence.
Earlier in the year, we were faced with the unprovoked attack by police riot squads on peaceful protesters at the Bersih 3.0 and Himpunan Hijau rallies in Kuala Lumpur. Authorities closed public transport hubs to contain an already dispersing crowd and the ordinary public who may not have participated in the protests. The dragnet was thrown over all present. Tear gas and water cannons were fired into the unarmed multitude, apparently, walking towards Dataran Merdeka.
Some (agitators?) instigated acts of criminal damage to tempt those unable to control their frustration with existing circumstances, whether real or perceived, and further aggravated the violence initiated by the state security forces. Journalists doing their job were attacked by police, in an effort to prevent knowledge of this atrocity being revealed to the world at large. Press equipment was destroyed and loss sustained uncompensated. Yet, the news escaped into cyberspace for the world to know.
People were injured, including a few policemen. Yet, the government-controlled media, with forked tongue, selectively reported these, neglecting the injuries sustained by many of the common people. Last year, tear gas was thrown into a hospital, yet blatant denials spewed from government mouthpieces. Threats to personal safety of leaders of these peaceful protests, arrests, beatings, and police interrogation, expectedly followed. None of the activists and common people were compensated for the injuries inflicted by the state’s brute force. In the wake of all this orchestrated violence, none has been made accountable, nor admitted responsibility for causing the ruckus and loss.
At the same time, other related protests broke out around the country in unanimous support of the KL Bersih 3.0 rally. Most went unhindered. It looked as if the capital had to be defended against the multitude of peaceful protesters,whilst peaceful rallies in states like Penang convened and dispersed without any police interference or incitement of violence. This made the use of state violence in the capital appear even more obviously deliberate.
Brutalised without reason
An arrested suspect ends up dead in a police lock up. There have been numerous cases recorded over the years lying in court and lawyers’ case files. Kugan, Teoh Beng Hock, Gunasegeran, and several more, who now don’t live to tell the tale. Minors like Aminulrasyid lost their lives for a prank because of trigger-happy cops. Foreigners suspected, but not proven, to have committed crimes have also been victims of arbitrary killing by state security enforcers. With no inquest into the cases of foreign suspects, there is no evidence but the word of the police, supposedly acting in self-defence. Dubious proof and a judiciary that lacks independence ensure verdicts remain consistent. Coroners often rely on open verdicts: an uncommitted and neutral answer – despite the volume of evidence of suspicious circumstances surrounding these widely publicised deaths.
This kind of violence stalks the man-in-the-street. The traditional stereotypes of cops-and-robbers, ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is only a myth. There is much to be proven before any verdict should be passed, and the absence of concrete irrefutable evidence has frequently been ignored. The aim of prosecution seems simply to secure guilty verdicts to meet target numbers of prosecutions set by the A-G’s Chambers, deviating from the true objective of doing justice.
This apparently senseless, secretive and devious violence committed without witnesses, often behind closed doors, by the ‘keepers of law and order’, is a dangerous hazard that all residents in this country face. Corruption and racism have produced an unsafe environment for the common people, especially the voiceless, invisible, and least powerful in society. We remain uncertain of our personal security. Is this justice?
Violence breeds violence
The inversion of values and misdirected crackdowns against the justified exercise of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms in this country automatically open the floodgates to the commission of crime. Mainstream broadcast media appear to be bankrupt of real news to report except to serve the ruling regime as outlets for public announcements and propaganda; besides playing the role of police and court diaries in video form. It homes in on daily common criminal trials and crimes under investigation. The menu of local and national news is limited, with reports of horrific traffic accidents thrown in to add spice without taste.
From this often tasteless and insipid menu, one fact can clearly be deduced – crime rates are spiralling. A viewer can anticipate that the number of homicide crimes reported in a week can be at least three or four, the number of property crimes i.e. theft, burglary, bribery or arson, could number at least two to three, disastrous accidents resulting in death could be four to five, about one occurring everyday. These are sprinkled with trials of persons for crimes like rape, incest, assault and battery.
The business news usually covers world economies, the stock exchange, and how wonderfully well Malaysia is faring with foreign investors queueing up to put their money here. We always have fair weather despite the economic thunderstorms wreaking destruction in countries far and near. In fact, when it comes to natural disasters, Malaysia is said to be one of the safest places on earth, so we believe.
It is not that these events hold no value as news, but the disproportion of the focus of news bulletins implies the scarcity of important news stories. What an ordinary viewer may deduce from watching prime time television is that security of person and property is deteriorating, despite the widely publicised police ‘victories’ on crime busting in the mainstream mass media. Can a majority of the public believe what they are told by this media?
Ever so often, the boredom is broken with reports of local protests. The juicier ones invariably take place in the Pakatan Rakyat-administered states against the PR state governments. These are souped-up with fiery statements by Barisan Nasional politicians about how the PR should run their political campaigns or how they should govern their states modelled on past BN governing experience. So much for the BN understanding of democracy in which the rakyat must have a choice which they can freely make, without coercion or bribery by either side.
This article may seem one-sided but it only reflects the repertoire of the mainstream media attempting to give an impression that freedom of expression is alive and well in Malaysia. Perhaps the last bastion of this UDHR Article 19 right may reside in cyberspace, that comes under attack, from time to time, with forays into this territory by the state machinery, using institutional action against those seen causing serious damage to its image. A citizen in Johor was recently arrested for allegedly insulting the Sultan of Johor in a comment on his Facebook. The facts of this case are so ambiguous and the alleged offensive comments cannot be accessed, even by any of his family. So, this free space is shrinking with laws like Section 114A of the Evidence Act, devised to silence wagging tongues in cyberspace.
Thus another year has passed with few victories for the protection and promotion of human rights and human rights defenders. It is one more year added to the dismal record of violations and increasing restriction of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms in Malaysia.
The State and its machinery must be made accountable for all unjustified violence it approves and will only be redeemed if it decides to concretely change its agenda to keep its promises to make protection and respect of human dignity, rights and fundamental freedoms a priority in practice; not merely in theory, instituted to boost the image of the current government. Malaysians cannot continue to live on cosmetic dreams.
Angeline Loh, a long-time Aliran executive committee member, writes regularly for Aliran. WIth a background in international human rights law, she champions the rights of those who are often forgotten or marginalised in society.