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Malaysia Summons US Ambassador Over Comments on Sedition Act

FILE - US Ambassador to Malaysia Joseph Yun.

Malaysia has summoned the U.S. ambassador after he questioned a government decision to strengthen a law against sedition, which critics say has been used to crack down on government detractors, despite an earlier promise to scrap it.

Joseph Yun was called in on Wednesday to explain the U.S. position following his comments in an interview with an online news portal, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

The ministry called for the United States to respect Malaysia's internal affairs and allow it “the space... to ensure continued peace, security and stability.”

The 1948 Sedition Act is a relic of British colonial rule aimed at keeping a lid on tension in the multi-ethnic country. It criminalizes speech with an undefined “seditious tendency.”

Rights groups and lawyers say it inhibits free speech.

Prime Minister Najib Razak had pledged to repeal the Act in 2012 as part of liberal reforms to promote openness.

But last month, he said it would be bolstered to defend the sanctity of Islam, and penalize anyone who called for the secession of the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, where separatist talk has occasionally arisen.

Yun said in an interview with the Malaysia Kini news site on December 4 the United States was “a little bit puzzled” when Malaysia announced it would not repeal but strengthen the act.

“For the government to have this change of position on an issue that is important to basic freedom, freedom of speech and dealing with the very plural society of Malaysia, there must be a good reason,” Yun told Malaysia Kini.

The ministry said decisions on the act were the government's prerogative and unwarranted comment by external parties would be seen as interference.

In a flurry of cases this year, prosecutors have charged some anti-government activists and opposition politicians with sedition.

Critics say Najib has caved in to calls from within his majority ethnic Malay party to get tougher on the opposition, which has gained in the past two elections, and on online news sites that criticize government policies.