The uproar over Malaysia’s disputed election shows few signs of abating after the government charged three outspoken opposition figures with sedition, an antiquated and much maligned law primarily used to quell dissent. The crackdown comes amid accusations of vote rigging during the May 5 ballot that saw the incumbent National Front coalition — in power since independence from Britain in 1957 — return with Prime Minister Najib Razak still at the helm. The turmoil provides more evidence that Malaysian democracy, long lauded as a beacon of progress and multiculturalism in Asia, is anything but secure.
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The National Front coalition, headed by Najib’s United Malays National Organization, has been under intense pressure since it emerged victorious in this month’s poll. The election was perhaps the most vitriolic in living memory, with factions attempting to outsmear one another. In the run-up to the polls, U.K.-based rights group Global Witness filmed family members of leading politicians apparently attempting to sell off protected land to activists posing as palm-oil prospectors. Nevertheless, the National Front managed to win 60% of seats, despite the fact they only secured 47% of the vote. (Malaysia uses a “first-past-the-post” electoral system.) Many in the opposition camp have refused to accept the result, and there have been demonstrations across the country.
On Thursday evening, opposition MP Tian Chua, vice president of the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) party, and pro-opposition activists Haris Ibrahim and Tamrin Ghafar were arrested. The news broke when Tian used his Twitter account to reveal that he had been detained at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He was en route to speak at a rally demanding an inquiry into the disputed election. Police also raided the offices of three opposition newspapers for suspected publishing violations, seizing hundreds of copies. “The detentions came after the police received numerous reports against the defendants by members of the public,” said a government spokesman.
Mujahid Yusof Rawa, an MP for Malaysia’s opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, tells TIME that the use of the Sedition Act is typical of an undemocratic government attempting to stem unrest. “After the election results there was a very strong perception that the Election Commission had manipulated many things,” he says. “So there was discontent amongst the voters, and people wanted to show their feelings.” He believes senior conservative figures within the ruling party wanted to remove leaders of the protest movement because they are intimidated by its robust and youthful following.
Other critics have also been targeted. Student activist Adam Adli Halim was charged under the Sedition Act after allegedly urging audience members at a public forum on May 13 to “go down to the streets to seize back our power.” He was released on Thursday after being questioned for five days, but faces a possible three-year prison sentence if eventually found guilty. Eighteen youth activists were also detained in Penang on Wednesday while holding a candlelight vigil for Adli. The Sedition Act has been widely condemned as a tool that is used solely for crushing legitimate dissent, and last year Najib even pledged to repeal it. “The Malaysian government must stop using the country’s outdated Sedition Act and repressive provisions of the penal code to stifle the right to free expression and peaceful assembly,” Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific deputy director Isabelle Arradon said in a statement.
Ong Kian Ming, a renowned Malaysian academic and political analyst who became an MP for the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), tells TIME that some of his colleagues, including an 86-year-old adviser, were also questioned by police. “I think it’s a clear sign of desperation by the incumbent regime as they lost the popular vote in the recent election,” he says. “It demonstrates that the Prime Minister is not sincere about national reconciliation.” The DAP now has 21 days to prepare a legal challenge to the supposedly flawed ballot, another factor Ong believes may have heralded the recent crackdown.
Kuala Lumpur police chief Mohammad Salleh refused to rule out further arrests when addressing the media on Thursday. “We will only find out after thorough investigations have been completed,” he says. Critics believe the government is trying to send a strong signal that any future protests would be met harshly, and argue that any efforts by security forces to quash dissent flies in the face of the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act. “Najib’s government is not a duly elected government. It [has] come into power by systemic widespread fraud aided and abetted by the Election Commission,” said Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim in a statement. What is happening in Malaysia, he said, is “tyranny writ large.”