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Malaysia Crackdown Targets Political Opponents

  • Luis Ramirez

Police in Malaysia have arrested more than 20 opposition activists as the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi clamps down on growing dissent in the country. VOA's Luis Ramirez has more from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

Witnesses in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, say police on Tuesday blocked and arrested the activists, who were trying to march to the parliament. They wanted to hand over a memorandum protesting plans to extend the term of the head of Malaysia's election commission.

Separately, authorities at the Kuala Lumpur airport briefly detained Anwar Ibrahim - one the country's prominent opposition leaders - on his return from Turkey. Authorities gave no reason for holding Anwar, but reports quoted officers as saying he had been placed on a police watch list.

The arrests and detentions Tuesday are the latest events in what critics say is the government's growing crackdown on dissent in the country. Malaysia in recent months has seen an unusually high number of protests over corruption, rising food and fuel prices, and ethnic marginalization.

Activists say the police are - more than ever - invoking Malaysia's laws banning assembly of more than four people without a permit. William Leong, a lawyer for Anwar and other activists, says the crackdown is in response to growing unrest in the country.

"There is growing frustration," he said. "There have been many issues that have been raised lately. Issues relating to the economy, issues relating to corruption, issues relating to poverty, and there has been a total lack of ability to express the unhappiness [of ] the people."

Many Malaysians are expressing anger over rising prices of fuel, highway tolls, and food, as well as a growing crime rate, and corruption, which activists say has worsened since Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi took office in 2003. Leong says disillusionment is spreading.

"This is really a very sad state of affairs because this country gave overwhelming support to the present prime minister, Abdullah Badawi. He came in on a platform of anti-corruption but what we have seen is really the opposite and that is a cause for concern," said Leong.

Some activists have been pushing for Mr. Abdullah to call early elections, perhaps in the coming year. The next poll is currently due in 2009.

Malaysia prides itself for its sustained economic growth and decades of relative harmony among its Malay, Chinese and Indian communities. Some of the recent protests, however, have seen Indians taking to the streets to protest what they say is a lack of business and educational opportunities, as well as oppression of Hindu Indians by the Malay majority, which is mostly Muslim.

Police last month used water cannon and tear gas to disperse thousands of ethnic Indian demonstrators who gathered for a rally in the capital.

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