Friday, October 30, 2009

Democratic rights still far off
29 Oct 09 : 8.00AM By Ding Jo-Ann

"POST-8 March, [the election results] left civil society exhilarated and giddy knowing that change is possible," says Women's Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Ivy Josiah. "It has strengthened Malaysians as a whole to speak up, organise and demand reform."

Candlelight vigils have become part of the fabric of city life

Indeed, since the last general election, Malaysians have been upping their engagement with issues in the public sphere. Citizen movements such as the Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia and Fast for the Nation initiatives have been organised by citizens who want to see a better Malaysia. Candlelight vigils have become part of the fabric of city life. With civil society leaders such as residents' association frontperson Edward Lee and human rights activist Elizabeth Wong elected into government, the expectation is civil society's influence will be stronger in the days to come.

But have the election results of 20 months ago resulted into tangible change on the ground?

New opportunities

"The post-March 8 [climate] has given us a window of opportunity to work with legislators who are keen on reforms and changes using the human rights framework," says Centre for Independent Journalism(CIJ), Malaysia executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran. "Residents and human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have the ears of the state leaders in some states like never before."

She cites the example of the Selangor government trying to address the issues of displaced estate workers due to the commercialisation of plantations. "It is still early to tell if these will yield the results, but the process is in place."

It's not just Pakatan Rakyat (PR) representatives who are now accessible to civil society. "Interestingly, [BN] government representatives including ministers and Members of Parliament have also been seeking out civil society as they too have learnt that they should listen and take action," Josiah says.

The increased attention has resulted in an increased workload for some NGOs. Centre for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC) director Dr Colin Nicholas says COAC's work has increased "manifold" as certain governments have started taking steps to address Orang Asli concerns.

"[T]wo states - Perak (before the BN wrested the state from PR) and Selangor - have taken very proactive steps to protect and advance Orang Asli rights and interests. This has resulted in diverting a lot of our time and resources to working with the state on ways to realise the new thrust of these two opposition-led governments," says Nicholas. continue,

With the "window of opportunity" that has opened, civil society groups have their work cut out for them in the next few years.

From aiming to pass freedom of information laws in at least two states, to reforming Islamic family law, to recognising indigenous rights, it's clear that civil society is not idle.\

But many more hands are needed. "There are so many areas of human rights violations in this country that need proper research, documentation and representation. In terms of human resources, we are still at a shortfall," says Khoo.

He says that on a recent trip to Miri, he heard of many cases where indigenous customary land rights had been violated because the state had granted mining concessions and plantation rights to companies. However, there weren't enough lawyers to file actions against the Sarawak government.

Nicholas also says they are under-resourced, while Josiah cites the need for more resources so that WAO's work can expand into non-urban areas where it is also much needed.

Holding "friends" accountable

Although great strides forward have been made, the task at hand remains enormous.

Bar Council human rights committee co-chairperson Andrew Khoo says: "To a certain extent, we've grown up a bit since 8 March. We've realised that things are not so easy to accomplish. Even when those we were working with have become members of state governments, we have
learnt it's not so easy to deliver on some of the promises that were made."

Khoo says that the pace of change has in some instances been disappointing. He cites the delay in implementing local government elections in PR-held states.

Gayathry concurs. "One of the challenges we face is the diluted commitment by PR members in some core areas of reforms," she says. "Among them are their own manifestos to introduce local council elections. You get a sense that there is some backtracking now and that is not healthy."

With former civil society leaders now in government, people like Gayathry also find themselves redefining some relationships, especially with friends who have since been elected into public office.

"Our expectation is that these friends will be able to push the reform agenda to the fullest but this is not always the case...Sometimes the leaders of the PR parties think we unfairly target them but they don't understand that we are only keeping them in check," she says.

Although it is often BN leaders who label civil society as "irresponsible NGOs", Nicholas and Josiah both acknowledge that there are also those in PR who need to be better informed about human rights issues. "[W]e have friends in Pakatan and BN states just as we have detractors in Pakatan and BN," Josiah says.\

International shame
In terms of political support, the federal government has yet to demonstrate a clear commitment to engaging with civil society. Khoo says the government only seems to respond when there is a risk of foreign direct investment drying up.

"For example, the problem of trafficking in persons. It wasn't until the United States government put us on the watch list that [the government] did something about it. The Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act 2007 came into force, and then we were taken off the watch list.

"[But] after one year of nothing happening, we were then put back on the watch list. Now, we're seeing prosecutions," Khoo observes.

Khoo also says that since the Internal Security Act has received international attention, the government has decided to make changes to it. However, he points out that there are many people detained without trial under the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime)Ordinance 1969 and Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985 which no one is doing much about.

Way forward
Injustices suffered by Penan people are seen as inadequately addressed by the government (© Sofiyah Israa / Flickr)

It remains to be seen how civil society can galvanise the extra support it needs to see the kind of changes required for a "basic democracy" to function.

Nicholas, who has been working to establish indigenous rights for years, says: "A total change of government appears to be our best option in achieving this at the moment compared to the tedious and expensive court cases, lobbying, dialogues and other methods we have been using."

Khoo believes that more human rights education is needed for those in positions of leadership. "We need basic understanding of human rights to permeate administrative and judicial decisions. We need more training for our judges and decision-makers to take into account basic human rights norms," says Khoo.

But perhaps more importantly, how much change and how quickly it will happen will depend on public support. Without citizens actively clamouring for full civil liberties and democratic rights, it would be a rare government indeed that would deliver democracy on a silver platter.

It still depends on the angle that you are looking from. If you ask somebody in one of the Arab countries they would say our democracy is far ahead and the best among developing countries... yet if you ask somebody from he may not list us as democratic country at all..

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