Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Crackdown not the best way to deal with calls for secession

Debate and dialogue would have been the better response in dealing with calls for Borneo to secede from Malaysia, said academics and activists, as police start to crack down on groups pushing for a breakaway.

Though these groups represent a minority view point in Sabah and Sarawak, the concerns leading to their campaign for the two states to leave the federation are real problems faced by the people of Borneo.

And it is because there is a feeling that these concerns – illegal immigration in Sabah, underdevelopment of interior areas, being short-changed on oil royalties – are not heard that some groups have taken the radical route to campaign for secession.

As Sabah-based politician Datuk Jeffrey Kitingan said, charging people with sedition instead of listening to them would not solve the problem.

“People will just find other means to express themselves.”

Minority group 

It was reported that nine people were detained in Tuaran, Sabah, for allegedly distributing pamphlets regarding secession at the town’s weekly market.

They represented a minority, said Dr Zaini Othman of Universiti Malaysia, but the issues behind the campaign should not be ignored by the peninsula-based federal government.

These included relations between the federal government and the governments of Sabah and Sarawak and the issues that have cropped up between them in the 51 years since Malaysia was formed.

As previously reported by The Malaysian Insider, the secession movement and its different groups are fuelled by deep-seated feelings that Sabah and Sarawak have not benefitted from the Malaysian federation.

This includes claims that the peninsula has not kept its promises in the 20-point and 18-point Malaysia agreements made with Sabah and Sarawak respectively.

The specific issues range from the fact Sabah and Sarawak have lost control of their own finances and their education system, and that the indigenous locals have not been given priority in their civil service.

One of the most prominent initiatives of this movement is an online petition titled “Call for Sabah and Sarawak rights” on the website GoPetition.

The campaign is targeting 300,000 signatures for the petition whose aim is to reclaim the rights of Sabah and Sarawak under the 18- and 20-point agreements.

“They are a minority, but in any democracy, we should not dismiss the views of the minority. But the minority should be constructive in their methods as well,” said Zaini, a political scientist.

Zaini, however, disagreed with the methods the Tuaran group used. Surreptitiously spreading their message was not a “mature way” of making their voices heard, he said.

“They should go through the state legislature and get the state government to bring it up. That is the proper way.”

Kitingan, who is Bingkor assemblyman, however, disagreed with this assessment.

He said that those disenchanted with the federal government were resorting to such tactics because the Putrajaya had ignored them.

“The government is using the law to suppress and silence people who want the government to do something about their dissatisfactions.”

Betrayal of intentions

Kitingan claimed that the arrest of the nine was another example of Putrajaya going back on its word to listen to the grouses of Sabah and Sarawak folk.

In 1973, he said a cabinet committee to review the Malaysia agreement was formed under then deputy prime minister Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman.

After Ismail died, the committee was forgotten, Kitingan said.

Last year, Kitingan said the Najib administration was interested in meeting groups from Borneo to listen to their complaints.

“We waited for the meeting but it was only talk.”

The arrest of the nine, he said was a “betrayal” of Putrajaya’s intentions to listen to the grouses of Sabah and Sarawak folk and a “denial of justice”.

“You are not addressing the problem. You are threatening to use the law against people who are telling the government to do something about the problem,” said Kitingan.

Instead of going through with the meeting, last November, Putrajaya announced it would expand the Sedition Act so that it also deals specifically against those calling for secession.

Diversionary tactic?

Another problem with invoking the Sedition Act to deal with a non-violent group is that it runs counter to the principle of the exchange of ideas in a healthy democracy.

“By invoking sedition, you are declaring to the world that Malaysia is an authoritarian state,” said Associate Professor Dr Andrew Aeria of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.

“The proper response would be to engage with them, to dialogue or to debate, using your brains,” Aeria, a political economist.

Instead, the ruling coalition was using force and brawn to deal with dissent, which was legitimate in a democratic society, he said.

Putting dissenting voices in jail also contradicts the government’s own aim of creating innovative, thinking citizens through its public universities.

“Through universal education, people have developed their intellect, dreams and hopes. But by arresting people solely for articulating democratic ideas about secession, the government is telling you that you should not think.

“Such actions essentially say that this government does not have respect for its own education system,” said Aeria.

Aeria and Kitingan speculate that the arrests could have a darker motive.

“Why not arrest all those people who gave illegal identity cards (in Sabah) or those who incite racial and religious tensions?” asked Kitingan.

“Instead of addressing real problems such as the crisis of confidence in the judiciary, the police and economic issues, the government cracks down on harmless people,” said Aeria.

“Is the government deliberately attempting to distract public attention from the real issues the country faces presently?” – February 3, 2015.

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