A Lesson From Zimbabwe, Sympathy From Malaysia

by Ezam Mohd Nor

A peaceful march winds its way through the nationīs capital, each demonstrator calling loudly for reforms in government and a change of leadership. Suddenly, the protest is disturbed by provocations from plainclothes policemen. Within an hour, demonstrators lie supine on the streets, their bones broken by riot police.Innocent blood is spilt.

The world saw with astonishment the treatment meted out against the people of Zimbabwe who had earlier calmly and openly called for a more democratic government.While it may have angered and roused television viewers around the world, such sights did not surprise Malaysians.After all, since the sacking of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim on 2 September 1998, the government of Malaysia had taken exactly the same brutal stance against pro-reform campaigners in this country.

Whether in Kuala Lumpur, or in Harare, ordinary people living under authoritarian governments have begun to realise that greater freedom can only be obtained at a great price.It is no longer sufficient to let time takes its toll on aging leaders.The wait has proven too long and at too great an expense.

Already, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, the impartiality of the election commission and the fairness of the police have all been sacrificed in the name of "stability" and "continuity".

Nor are elections alone sufficient.In Zimbabwe, the government delayed general elections after an unprecedented loss at the ballot box during a referendum on a new constitution.In Malaysia, at the last general election, the government used every trick in the book, including intimidations and manipulation of electoral rolls, to ensure that the peopleīs voice did not count.

Too often, the concept of an "indigenous democracy" is used to counter arguments for greater openness based on other major world democracies. Both Mugabe and Mahathir claim that only a system of democracy peculiar to Zimbabwe and Malaysia can ensure racial stability.However, their idea of democracy seems oddly similar in practice to strongman rule.

Such vital aspects of democratic government as fair and open elections, freedom of the press and a ban on torture are given only lip-service.

The government of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has also tried to argue that demonstrations and other public shows of protest were "un-Malaysian". Indeed, he has even tried to blame foreign governments for "instigating the public".According to Mahathir, these demonstrations could lead to unrest in a multiracial country such as Malaysia.

Yet the people of Zimbabwe, white and black, have risen against Robert Mugabe in exactly the same fashion as their Malaysian counterparts.Asians and Africans have together realised that the West has no monoploy on democracy.

In fact, democracy is a universal concept.What is more important is that any nation can, and should, replace its leader if the government is found to be wanting.

Like Mugabe, Mahathir played the racial card to stay in power.During the last election, the ruling party used television and the print media to scare off ethnic Chinese and Indian voters from voting against the government.

The opposition parties were portrayed as violent and unruly. Doctored pictures of ethnic riots in Indonesia were used to fool the public into thinking that voting for the alternative parties would lead to racial strife. The opposition parties were used as "bogeymen" to frighten off minority voters.

Such tactics show the cynical world view of a self-proclaimed "leader of the third world".While we applaud Mahathirīs concern on such major international issues as the treatment of the Muslim population of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Chechnya, tears should also be shed by the prime minister for his own people who have suffered intolerable restrictions on freedom during his nineteen years in power.

Leaders who criticise other countries should take care lest they fail to see the wood for the trees. Mahathirshould be wary that in Malaysia people are wondering why he is praised by cabinet ministers for doing the exact things which he condemns in others.

Malaysians should be proud of the people of Zimbabwe, fellow members of the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the G-20 group of developing nations. The people of Zimbabwe have exposed the lie that public demonstrations are the results of foreign influence and agents provocateur.The reality is that the people are sovereign and they could change agovernment by popular consent if they so wish it.

Mahathirīs cynical world view manifested itself again recently when he created a commission which is supposed to advise the government on human rights issues using a peculiar indigenous standard.Can it really be said that Malaysians expect a lower standard of treatment than their brothers and sisters in other countries?Are Malaysians more immune to torture,less sensitive to pain, more willing to accept degrading and inhumane punishments?

There should be one standard of human rights the world over, if there is any meaning to be attached to the term "human race".Whether in Asia, Africa or Europe, ordinary citizens should refuse to comprise their birthright to justice and fair treatment from any authority, including their own governments.

When a country proclaims loudly that it is a sovereign nation and therefore immune to criticism from other parts of the international community, it should remember that its sovereignty is not an abstract concept which is written down on pieces of paper or declarations of independence.In a democratic world, sovereignty cannot be used as an excuse to treat ordinary citizens with cruelty and contempt.

True sovereignty lies not with the government or the head of state, but with the people themselves. Rulers, presidents and prime ministers are but temporary trustees on behalf of the people.Their legitimacy becomes ineffective when misrule reigns and the public interest is supplanted by personal greed.

The world should not stand aside while nations such as Zimbabwe and Malaysia call for reforms in their governments.While we do not wish for foreign interference, we hope that the world community understands our thirst for greater freedom.Given our circumstances, people all over the world would do the same and fight for justice.

Winston Churchill once said, "dictators ride to and fro on tigers from which they dare not dismount".The strongmen of these countries would revert to the old tricks of xenophobia and extreme nationalism in order to justify repressive measures.World history has shown us that these methods lead only to greater internal and regional instability.The world must not "leave well alone" because there always exists a greater danger of further repressions in order to defeat a rising wave of discontent.Repression must be nipped in the bud before the costs both in human lives and freedom suppressed go too high.

On the 15th of April, Malaysians of all ages will again take to the streets in a peaceful call for further reforms.We will also ask the government to stop curtailing press and invidual freedoms.In doing so, we are merely exercising our democratic rights as free citizens of a sovereign country.

Like our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe, we hope that the world would support this universal call for justice and freedom. REFORMASI!