Malaysia’s Human Rights Record– 2016 is Annus Horribilis


December 10, 2016

Malaysia’s Human Rights Record– 2016 is Annus Horribilis

By Dr. Kua Kia Soong@ http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com

It was disingenuous of the government to make such an issue over Malaysian recipients of foreign funds when 2016 was a year that unraveled the fact that the Najib was the biggest single receiver of foreign funds in Malaysian history – all RM2.6 billion in his personal bank account. He himself revealed that this humongous sum was from the Saudi royal family. Now, if we were to compare the respective recipients of the Saudi Royal family’s donations and those of Soros’s, I think there is no comparison.–Dr. Kua Kia Soong

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2016 is certainly one of the worst years for human rights in Malaysia with detention without trial used against human rights defenders, bringing back memories of Operation Lalang unleashed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1987. Malaysia’s internationally celebrated cartoonist was arrested and charged, the online press Malaysiakini harassed yet again, neo-fascists intimidating peaceful Bersih 5 participants and getting away with impunity… all of these abominations happened while the country was embroiled in one of the biggest financial scandals involving the national sovereign fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

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Malaysia’s Person of the Year–BERSIH’s Maria Chin Abdullah

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The Runners-Up– Zunar

While the Police have been skillful at arresting and detaining Malaysians such as Maria Chin, Zunar and others, they have proven ineffectual at apprehending human traffickers, industrial polluters of water sources and the person or persons who have issued death threats against Maria. Have we seen any convictions against these criminals? Can we therefore count on our police force to apprehend international terrorists? And by letting neo-fascists get away with their bullying behaviour with impunity, the police run the risk of losing all credibility as keepers of law and order.

The charade over foreign funding

In an attempt to discredit the BERSIH 5 rally, the Malaysian government has once again raised the spectre of foreign funding of Malaysian NGOs by naming George Soros’s Open Society Foundations in particular. The government has conveniently omitted to mention Soros’s recent cordial interactions with both the former premier Mahathir and present Prime Minister Najib Razak.

It was disingenuous of the government to make such an issue over Malaysian recipients of foreign funds when 2016 was a year that unraveled the fact that the Najib was the biggest single receiver of foreign funds in Malaysian history – all RM2.6 billion in his personal bank account. He himself revealed that this humongous sum was from the Saudi royal family. Now, if we were to compare the respective recipients of the Saudi royal family’s donations and those of Soros’s, I think there is no comparison.

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Malaysia’s Crooks of 2016–Malaysia’s Prime Minister and his Boss

For example, from the recent Wikileaks, we discover that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton sent an email to her campaign chairman John Podesta in 2014, who was then-counsellor to President Barack Obama in which it was intimated that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were both giving financial and logistical support to the Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups. Saudi Arabia had also been bombing Yemen rebels for more than a year now creating yet another humanitarian crisis there.

On the other hand, human rights NGOs such as Suaram are transparent in our work as we have to be especially when we are dealing with a vindictive government. We became even more open when the government ordered at least six agencies to investigate our accounts and files in 2012 and 2013. The vain attempt to demonise us in concert with mainstream media ended up with the NST having to make the “mother of all editorial apologies” to us after we sued them. And still the powers that be have persisted in playing the same old charade against Maria Chin and BERSIH in 2016. How can we achieve national transformation when we waste national resources in such pointless exercises? The Police, Special branch and other government agencies should be deployed in more productive operation

Suaram’s publications

And where do Suaram’s funds go? More tall stories abound, such as one blogger surmised: “There are clear reasons why Suaram receives funding; it publishes books and political articles written by its founder, Kua Kia Soong, that are highly critical of the Malaysian government and are capable of arousing passions in ethnic minorities who feel marginalised through arguing in favour of regime change.” (Nile Bowie, “Understanding US Funding to Malaysian Civil Society” April 5, 2013)

That is exactly “spreading false news”. For the benefit of those who prefer to seek the truth, Suaram’s publications, apart from our Human Rights reports, have always been my personal contribution to Suaram all these years. I personally bear the costs of producing all these Suaram publications. My books have been sustained by their retail sales which go on to sustain the next publication.

We certainly do not need any funding for publications other than our annual human rights reports. Suaram’s funding goes towards nurturing a small staff of committed activists who document and monitor human rights issues; help various victims of detentions and police abuse and conduct human rights training and campaigns. After their exhaustive investigation of Suaram in 2012 and 2013, the Malaysian government is probably the best authority on Suaram’s finances and spending and can vouch for our squeaky clean record.

Extremely bad governance

2016 was a year of extremely bad governance with the US Department of Justice naming those who abused Malaysia’s national sovereign fund 1MDB although for some strange reason, it stopped short of naming the Malaysian Official #1.

The Opposition-run state governments have not been examples of good governance either:

The Kelantan government continues to allow logging on Orang Asli land and has been suppressing the blockades set up by the besieged “Original People” of Malaysia. The Forestry Department and the police have taken the side of the loggers instead of that of the oppressed indigenous people.

The Selangor government allows highways that cut through state park forests and seems to be helpless against factories situated dangerously close to our valuable water sources.

In Penang, the Chief Minister still refuses to resign after being charged with corruption. This sets a bad precedent for any other office bearer in government, including MO#1, should he be charged for corruption.

Getting away with impunity

Finally, the spectacle of Mahathir joining the opposition raises a disturbing question surrounding his culpability in so many scandals that have been documented by the Leader of the Opposition from 1981 to 2003. Does he now get away with impunity for all his transgressions against accountability and loss of national coffers simply because he has joined the opposition coalition?

This “Born Again” rule seems to apply even to the prime minister who assaulted the Malaysian judiciary so badly we have hardly recovered thirty years afterwards. He has not only been cleansed and forgiven; some opposition leaders are even calling for him to lead the opposition against the current regime. So, it looks more than likely that Pakatan Harapan leaders will allow the “born again democrat” to get away with impunity for all the financial scandals that cost the rakyat so many billions of ringgit during the 80s and 90s.

For human rights defenders who demand social justice, democracy and human rights, there is no place for impunity. Impunity means “exemption from punishment or loss or escape from fines”. The First Principle of the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights through Action to Combat Impunity, submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights on February 8, 2005 states that: “Impunity arises from a failure by States to meet their obligations to investigate violations; to take appropriate measures in respect of the perpetrators, particularly in the area of justice, by ensuring that those suspected of criminal responsibility are prosecuted, tried and duly punished; to provide victims with effective remedies and to ensure that they receive reparation for the injuries suffered; to ensure the inalienable right to know the truth about violations; and to take other necessary steps to prevent a recurrence of violations.”

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This principle applies to past transgressors as much as it does to present leaders who flout good governance for if Pakatan Harapan can let Mahathir get away with impunity, they will have to do the same for MO#1 when he decides to step down from office.

Dr Kua Kia Soong is the advisor of SUARAM (Suara Rakyat Malaysia).

 

Does Britain owe reparations to India and other former colonies?


December 5, 2016

Does Britain owe reparations to India and other former colonies?

Shashi Tharoor’s speech to the Oxford Union on whether Britain should pay reparations for colonial-era attrocities went viral online. Photo: AFP

A speech to the Oxford Union by Indian former UN Undersecretary-General Shashi Tharoor appears to have hit a nerve online

By Shashi Tharoor

At the end of May 2015, I was invited by the Oxford Union to speak on the proposition ‘Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies’. The event, in the Union’s impressive wood-panelled premises, was a success and I left pleased enough, but without giving the proceedings a second thought.

In early July, however, the union posted the debate on the web and sent me a video copy of my own speech. I promptly tweeted a link to it and watched in astonishment as it went viral.

Within hours it was being downloaded and replicated on hundreds of sites, sent out on WhatsApp and forwarded by email. One site swiftly crossed over three million views while others did not keep track, but reported record numbers of hits. Even the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, congratulated me publicly for having said ‘the right things at the right place’. Hundreds of articles were written for and against what I had said. For months, I kept meeting strangers who came up to me in public places to praise my ‘Oxford speech’.

This is why my publishers persuaded me that the arguments outlined in my speech needed to be turned into a substantial book. It has just been published in India and is already the number one bestseller on several lists.

Should a work of engaged amateur history have aroused so much passion? Seventy years after independence, shouldn’t we just forget about the past and move on? Is there still any moral urgency to explain to today’s Indians why colonialism was the horror it turned out to be? A lot of the popular histories of the British Empire in the last decade or two, by the likes of Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, have painted colonialism in rosy colors, and this needed to be challenged. Historical material is available to everyone who’s willing to look for it, but perhaps, in the rush of modern materialism, we’ve stopped looking.

In three months’ time, the book will also be published in Britain, which has been suffering from a kind of historical amnesia about colonialism. As the book emerged from the press in India, an article by a Pakistani writer in The Guardian pointed out that the Brits simply don’t teach their own schoolchildren the truth about their colonial past. Many Brits are genuinely unaware of the atrocities committed by their ancestors and live in the blissful illusion that the Empire was some sort of benign boon to the ignorant natives.

There’s been a lot of self-justificatory mythologising in Britain about the colonial era. Popular television shows tend to focus only on the romanticised aspects of the Raj. All this explains Britons’ ignorance, but does not excuse it.

British rule deindustrialised India, created landlessness and poverty, drained our country’s resources, exploited, enslaved, exiled and oppressed millions, sowed seeds of division and inter-communal hatred that led to the country’s partition into two hostile states, and was directly responsible for the deaths of 35 million people in unnecessary and mismanaged famines as well as of thousands in massacres and killings. That just skims the surface of the havoc wreaked by British colonialism. The British conquered one of the richest countries in the world and reduced it to one of the poorest. At the beginning of the 18th century, India accounted for 23 per cent of global GDP. When the British left it was down to barely 3 per cent. A country where landlessness and poverty were virtually unknown before the British, found itself at independence with 90 per cent of its population living below the poverty line.

Of course, many see lasting benefits from British rule. But each of these supposed benefits in turn – political unity, democracy and rule of law, the civil services, the railways, the English language, tea and even cricket – was designed to serve British interests and any benefit to Indians was either incidental or came despite the British.

But I don’t in fact ask for reparations, as the Oxford debate did. How do you place a monetary value on all that India suffered and lost under British rule? There’s really no compensation that would even begin to be adequate, or credible. The symbolic pound-a-year I’d suggested would be a nightmare to administer.

Atonement is therefore the best we can hope for. An apology by the British would signal true atonement. Imagine a British prime minister, on the centenary of the notorious Jallianwala Bagh masssacre, apologising to the Indian people for that atrocity and by extension for all colonial injustices – that would be better than any sum of reparations. The British could also teach the harsh truth about colonialism to their schoolchildren instead of allowing them to wallow in romanticised ignorance about their own past misdeeds.

An Indian man takes a photograph of a painting depicting the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar. The massacre took place on April 13, 1919, when British Indian Army soldiers on the direct orders of their British officers opened fire on an unarmed gathering killing at least 379 men, women and children. Photo: AFP

Yet the book is not intended to have any bearing on today’s Indo-British relationship. That is now between two sovereign and equal nations, not between an imperial overlord and oppressed subjects. Indeed, British Prime Minister Theresa May has just concluded a visit to India seeking investment from here in her post-Brexit economy. You don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge.

 

 

The State of a Paranoid Government: Malaysia’s Freedom in Jeopardy


December 4, 2016

The State of a Paranoid Government: Malaysia’s Freedom in Jeopardy

by Aedi Asri@www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Zahid Hamidi says the task force, consisting of the Police, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Bank Negara Malaysia and the Attorney-General’s Chambers will also check on civil society movements receiving overseas funds.

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DPM Zahid Hamid, that’s what happens when you lose your legitimacy to govern; people power takes hold. Civil society organizations are formed, and citizens take to the streets to protest. Then you stifle and intimidate them, and the people react and the whole situation repeats itself in a vicious circle of repression, reaction and suppression. 

Governing for all its complexities is,  in fact, simple if you genuinely want to serve people. But not, if you are incompetent and corrupt. Our leaders like you never learn the lessons of history, and that is people power triumphs in the end.–Din Merican

The government has set up a task force to monitor and investigate movements which are seeking to “overthrow the government”, says UMNO Acting Deputy President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

In his winding up speech at the 70th Umno general assembly, Zahid, who is also home minister, said the task force comprised the police, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Bank Negara Malaysia and the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

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“Let the task force do its job independently. If they find solid evidence, then action will be taken,” he said.

Zahid claimed there were some organizations here which had been been influenced by the idea of what he called “the Color Movement”, which, he said, was being pushed by an institution known as the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action Strategies (Canvas).

The Color Movement, he said, wanted to accomplish revolutions without violence by training, planning and developing strategies to oust democratically-elected governments.

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He said the Color Movement was a concept founded by Gene Sharp through the Albert Einstein Institute, which, he added, received funds from the National Endowment for Democracy, International Republic Institute , George Soros Foundation and the Open Society Foundations (OSF).

In recent years, Zahid claimed, Color Movement activities had been carried out in Ukraine, Lebanon, Iraq and Kuwait, among other countries.

“In Malaysia, some organisations have been found to be influenced by the idea of the Color Movement, too, including Suaram, BERSIH, Bar Council, Malaysiakini and Sarawak Report,” he claimed.

According to a report in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) published on Nov 3, civil society organisations in Malaysia had received funds from OSF in recent years.

This was confirmed by the OSF in their response to queries from the Hong Kong-based publication.

OSF had also admitted to providing small grants to election reform coalition BERSIH shortly after it was formed in 2011 but said it did not currently support the group.

“The Open Society Foundations are proud to have supported civil society in Malaysia for 10 years. Claims that the Open Society Foundations funded attempts to overthrow the government in Malaysia are entirely false.

“The Open Society Foundations support justice, accountability and democratic practice around the world, and in Malaysia our grant-making to civil society includes efforts to promote public health, foster fair migration policies and encourage the civic and political participation of all Malaysian citizens,” OSF was quoted as saying in an email reply to SCMP.

 

Maria Chin Abdullah et. al and the Fight for Regime Change


December 2, 2016

Maria Chin Abdullah et. al and the Fight for Regime Change

by Ambassador Dato’  Dennis Ignatius

Maria Chin Abdullah & the quest for change

No one should underestimate the power of the simple faith that was on display through all those days, at all those events, the belief that somehow justice will prevail in the end, that what we do as citizens, no matter how small, can make a difference.–Dennis Ignatius

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The crowds that turned out to support BERSIH 5.0 and the vigils and rallies to free Maria speak volumes about the hunger and thirst for change, for justice and good governance in Malaysia.

An outrageous act 

The arrest of Maria, in particular, seems to have generated an upsurge of public anger at the outrageous behaviour of those in power. That the government would treat a widow, a crusader for justice, a woman who has spent most of her adult life fighting for the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the downtrodden in such a cruel, callous and capricious manner was simply beyond the pale.

Instead of intimidating the people, however, Maria’s arrest appears to have strengthened their conviction that their struggle for justice, for good governance, for accountability is a righteous one and must be pursued with vigour for the sake of our nation.

And they turned out in force to send a message to those in power that such actions are simply unacceptable, that no citizen should be deprived of his or her liberty and rights and incarcerated in such an arbitrary manner, that laws such as SOSMA have absolutely no place in a democratic society.

Can we still call Malaysia a democracy?

The authorities can, of course, spin their fanciful accounts of foreign interference, sinister plots to overthrow the government or undermine the state but they fool no one but themselves.

In fact, the more frantically they spew out such drivel, the more they lose credibility. The more they insist they are acting within the law when they act in such a high-handed manner, the more the law itself becomes suspect.

In any case, the state does not have the right to claim legitimacy with laws like SOSMA that are brokered on false promises and applied in bad faith.

The Prime Minister’s recent statement that he has no reason to apologize for SOSMA because it is needed to fight terrorism is appalling given that it has just been used against Maria. Is the Prime Minister now suggesting that all his critics and political opponents are terrorists?

After these events, can we even refer to Malaysia as a democracy any more?

Intimidation stiffens resolve

Somehow illiberal governments never seem to learn that harsh measures against those who fight for freedom and democracy stiffen resolve rather than weaken it. Far from discrediting human rights activists, they make martyrs of them. Instead of diminishing the stature of advocates for justice, they empower them.Have they learned nothing from history?

They tried to suppress the late Irene Fernendez, judicially harassing her for more than a decade; far from crushing her spirit, it made her stronger, more determined. In the process she became an international symbol of justice for migrant workers and refugees.

They tried to railroad another crusader for justice and change – Anwar Ibrahim – and today he has become a symbol of hope for Malaysian who long for a better nation. The longer they incarcerate him, the more his stature grows.

And now they are about to discover the full measure of Maria.Already, she is something of an icon in the struggle for freedom, good governance and justice in Malaysia. It was plain to see that the jubilant crowd that gathered in the city center last Monday night to celebrate her release, love her, admire her and look to her. Rarely do public figures evoke such enthusiasm.

A generational struggle for justice 

It is also heartening to see the generational mix in this struggle for a better Malaysia which people like Maria now lead.

The older folks, the Merdeka generation, some in their twilight years now, are coming out of retirement to join the fight. They were there when the dream of Malaysia was born and still hold on to it despite everything that has happened, still believing that we can be that nation we thought we would be.

So many youthful activists are rising up as well to fight for change and reform. It reminds me of the anti-war (Vietnam war for those of you who were not born then) movement in the US and the student activism of an earlier era in our history.

At the Free Maria – Mansuh SOSMA rally last Friday, for example, they sang protest songs and spoke with great fervor. Young student activists like Muhammad Luqman, Anis Syafiqah and Adam Adli are already paying a high price for their political convictions but they are undeterred.

They stand testimony to the fact that even the mighty power of the state – with its vast system of indoctrination, manipulation and patronage – cannot suppress the desire for change.

Clearly, the torch is being passed to a new generation with a passion for justice and democracy.

Malaysia’s wonder-women

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These smart women put Malaysian men to shame–They have guts to take on UMNO and its corrupt leader, the Rosmah controlled Najib Razak

It is said that crisis often brings out true leaders.In Malaysia, many of the remarkable leaders and voices for change that crisis has brought forth are women.

Despite deeply ingrained misogynistic attitudes, they rise like giants in the land, inspiring us all with their courage, quiet determination, fortitude and integrity; cajoling us to action.

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Mariam Mokhtar and Cartoonist ZUNAR

Women like Irene Fernandez, Wan Azizah, Maria Chin Abdullah, Ambiga Sreenevasan, Zainah Anwar, Cynthia Gabriel, Marina Mahathir, Noor Faridah Ariffin, Ivy Josiah, Anis Syafiqah, Siti Kassim, Zuraidah Kamaruddin, Theresa Kok, Hannah Yeoh, Mariam Mokhtar and others are now household names across the land.

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The Late Dr.Irene Fernandez –Champion of the Underdog and Down trodden and Human Rights

And when the authorities raid a women’s rights group aimed at encouraging women’s participation in the political process and threaten to charge them with activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy, you know that these women are becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Thank goodness for these remarkable women who inspire and encourage us to press on. Our nation is stronger, and better, because of them. They deserve our respect, admiration and gratitude.

The faith that brings change

Some may say that events like last Friday’s Free Maria-Mansuh SOSMA rally, and the vigils that preceded it, make little difference but Maria is now free!

Perhaps the authorities heard the roar of the people after all.Now the struggle continues for democracy, for justice, for the abolishment of repressive laws like SOSMA and an end to harassment and arbitrary arrests.

No one should underestimate the power of the simple faith that was on display through all those days, at all those events, the belief that somehow justice will prevail in the end, that what we do as citizens, no matter how small, can make a difference.

The words of that towering figure in the fight for justice – Martin Luther King – come to mind:

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

 

 

Farewell to Freedom Fighter Fidel Castro


November 26, 2016

Farewell to Freedom Fighter Fidel Castro

http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21710922-cubas-communist-leader-who-outlasted-ten-american-presidents-has-died-age-90

TO MEET Fidel Castro was to notice, first of all, his sheer physical presence. He was tall, erect and had a high, domed forehead that made him look naturally imperious. He was strong: as a youth he was awarded a prize as the best all-round sportsman in Cuba. He was brave to the point of recklessness; as a boy, he once rode a bicycle straight into a wall to prove his mettle. And he was determined, absolutely convinced of his own rightness, intolerant of contradiction and immune to compromise. These characteristics he had inherited from his father, a Spanish migrant who brought with him to Cuba the innate stubbornness of the gallego and who became a prosperous landowner.

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The son, who was born illegitimate in Birán, in rural eastern Cuba, in 1926, added a prodigious ambition for power. Even the Jesuits who taught him saw danger coming in the big, headstrong boy, whose country slang from the cane fields of Oriente marked him out among his urban classmates. The Cuban revolution as it turned out—though not as many of its supporters had originally hoped—was above all an expression of Mr Castro’s will and the unbridled exercise of his massive ego. In his cold-war heyday, he turned his small island into a pocket superpower, fomenting revolution across Latin America, dispatching armies to Africa and brazenly sheltering fugitives, political and criminal, from the United States.

Fidel—he was one of the few world leaders widely referred to by his Christian name—was lucky, too. He might have been killed many times: as an aspiring leader in the gangsterish ambience of Havana student politics; in his quixotic assault on the Moncada barracks in 1953, where some of his followers died; or in the desperate early weeks after the botched landing of the Granma, the overloaded pleasure boat that transported his tiny force of 82 rebels from Mexico three years later. Then there were the hundreds of attempts by the CIA to assassinate him, ranging from the farcical—an exploding cigar—to the near-misses: a dose of botulism that burst before it could be added to a milkshake by a barman at the Habana Libre (ex-Hilton) hotel.

Had it not been for a fortuitous amnesty for political prisoners decreed by Fulgencio Batista, the dictator he went on to overthrow, he might have rotted for decades in prison. Then there was Cuba’s island condition, protected from continental armies of liberation (except, as it turned out, Mr Castro’s own). This had allowed Spain to hang on to its “iever-faithful isle” for seven decades after it lost its mainland American empire. It would allow Mr Castro’s regime to survive the fall of the Berlin Wall despite the bankruptcy of his revolution. As it was, the most serious attempt to unseat him, the ill-fated Bay of Pigs expedition organised by the CIA in 1961, became his crowning triumph: submachine-gun in hand, he directed the operation that saw his revolutionary armed forces kill or imprison the invaders, deprived of air support by the hesitation of President John F. Kennedy, before they could leave the beach.

A Marxist of convenience

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That was not the Americans’ only mistake. In 1952 Batista, a former army sergeant, staged a coup which ended Cuba’s sole experiment with democracy after just a dozen years. The Eisenhower administration, obsessed with an all but non-existent communist threat in the Caribbean, backed what would be a deeply corrupt and brutal regime. Batista’s coup thwarted Mr Castro’s certain election to Congress and a promising career in democratic politics. Instead, by skilled propaganda and force of will, he turned himself into the undisputed leader not just of a ragtag band of armed guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra but of a broad and politically variegated movement for the restoration of democracy and the 1940 constitution.

The guerrillas in the mountains, together with sabotage and strikes across the island, broke the spirit of Batista’s army and government. Batista himself fled, on New Year’s Eve 1958, taking most of the Central Bank’s reserves of dollars and gold. On arriving in Havana with his band of bearded revolutionaries in January 1959, Mr Castro installed a provisional government headed by a liberal judge. Its initial programme was populist: big wage increases, rent reductions and a radical land reform. But this was merely to buy time, while he built up the armed forces and security services—including the powerful political police, the G2—and cemented an alliance, begun in secret in the sierra, with the Communist Party. Before the revolution was even a year old, the “bourgeois elements” in the government were ousted, or resigned; over the next few months, critical media outlets were silenced one by one. Within six years, all private property, down to corner shops, was expropriated. By then, most of the middle class had been definitively alienated and many of its members had fled to Miami.

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Mr Castro did not always hate the United States. He had gone on honeymoon there, buying a white Lincoln Continental and feasting on T-bone steaks. A few weeks after coming to power he visited America again, this time in combat fatigues, but eating hot-dogs like a native and offering to be friends. Eisenhower preferred to play golf, leaving his vice-president, Richard Nixon, to meet Mr Castro and to identify in him “those indefinable qualities that make him a leader of men”.

By then, however, neither side had illusions about the other. In 1958 in the sierra, having watched Batista’s air force drop American-supplied rockets and bombs, he wrote to Celia Sánchez, his closest companion, “I swore that the Americans are going to pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over, I’ll start a much longer and bigger war of my own: the war I’m going to fight against them.” For its part, the Eisenhower government was quick to set in train measures aimed at overthrowing him. Nixon thought Mr Castro “either incredibly naive” or “under communist discipline”.

Fidel was a Marxist of convenience, a Cuban nationalist by conviction and a Latin American caudillo by vocation. His hero was José Martí, the Cuban patriot who fought against Spain but was correctly wary of American covetousness towards Cuba. In the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States hijacked the independence rebellion Martí had started and turned Cuba into a neo-colony. Under the notorious Platt Amendment, it reserved the right to intervene in the island at any time. That was revoked in the 1930s, but American domination of the economy and the vital sugar industry continued until the revolution. It brought development—a large middle class lived well—but also deep inequality.

Fidel embraced Martí’s nationalism and anti-imperialism, but not his belief in social democracy. He turned to communism because it was useful as a tool of absolute power of a kind enjoyed by no run-of-the-mill strongman, coming, as it did, with the shield of Soviet protection (plus Soviet weapons and Soviet oil) for the duration of the cold war. The American trade embargo was even more useful: it allowed him to blame the imperialist enemy for the woeful economic failures of his own central planning.

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It was his brother, Raúl (younger by five years), who was the orthodox communist, as well as the quiet organiser who turned the tiny rebel army into a disciplined armed force of 300,000 in the two years after the revolution. It was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Mr Castro’s Argentine companion in arms, who was the Marxist theoretician.

In the early days, at least 550 (and perhaps 2,000 or more) opponents of the revolution were executed. Many of them were Batista henchmen whose demise was popular. Once the revolution was secure, Mr Castro’s rule was repressive though not especially bloody. Nothing and nobody was allowed to diminish his power. “There are no neutrals,” he declared. “There are only partisans of the revolution or enemies of it.” And the revolution, of course, was Fidel.

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Many believe that he allowed Guevara to perish in Bolivia, or could have done more to try to save him, turning an awkward and unbiddable subordinate into a useful myth. Mr Castro was a troublesome ally for the Soviets. He took their money but not always their advice. He first embraced crash industrialisation, then dropped it in favour of the drive for a 10m-tonne sugar harvest. Both involved serious economic reverses. Though sometimes persuaded to decentralise economic decision-making (which usually boosted output) he always ended up concentrating all power in his own hands again.

He gave Cubans first-world education and health services, and did not care about the cost of these to the economy. But he offered neither opportunity nor prosperity, least of all freedom. Dissenters faced a grim choice: the risky crossing to Florida, or the grim jails of Cuba’s gulag. Most chose silence. Eventually Mr Castro would open a safety valve, letting those who might stir up trouble go abroad.

Fidel was the inspirational leader, the man of action, the master strategist, the obsessive control-freak who micromanaged everything from hurricane preparedness to the potato crop. He was, above all, tireless. In marathon sessions, often beginning after midnight and lasting until after dawn, he would interrogate visitors about every facet of the political situation in their country. He loved details—the statistics of food production in every Cuban province or the properties of Chinese electric rice-cookers. He kept them in his head, and would recite them in those interminable speeches.

He was careful to discourage an overt personality cult. He kept his private life, most of his nine children and Dalia del Soto Valle, whom he married in 1980, largely hidden from public view. He promoted younger men only to discard them if they aspired openly to succeed him. His was the overwhelming presence, brooding like a weather system over Cuba’s dilapidated streets; and his was the voice, droning on in televised speeches for hour after hour, alternately rising to a peak of righteous indignation and falling to a whisper of injured innocence. He never listened, said his sister, Juanita, who left for Miami.

The revolution abroad

Mr Castro operated on the world stage as no other Latin American leader ever had since the days of Francisco Miranda and Simón Bolívar, the South American independence heroes of two centuries ago. He turned himself into an important player in the global conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, between capitalist democracy and communist dictatorship. In seeking the protection of Soviet missiles he came closer than anyone else to turning that ideological confrontation into nuclear war.

Under his leadership, Cuba, an island of just 10m people, became a “Latin American Sparta” (in the words of Jorge Castañeda, a Mexican critic of the revolution). In the 1960s he aided a generation of idealistic young Latin Americans who perished in doomed guerrilla ventures whose main achievement was to help trigger takeovers by bloodstained anti-communist military dictatorships. A decade later Mr Castro dispatched his armies to Africa, to combat apartheid but also to prop up corrupt or repressive (but anti-American) regimes in places like Ethiopia and Angola. In the 1980s he armed and aided leftist revolutionaries in Central America. With the end of the cold war, in the past two decades, it has been Cuban doctors rather than soldiers that have been sent abroad, first as missionaries for Fidel’s revolution and then as earners of scarce foreign currency.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union brought great privation to Cuba. The economy contracted by a third. Many forecast the imminent demise of Mr Castro and his revolution. He responded by declaring a “Special Period in Peacetime”, cover for some limited and pragmatic reforms. He reluctantly allowed Cubans to set up small businesses, such as restaurants, home repairs and farmers’ markets. He also legalised the use of the dollar and sought foreign investment, especially in developing a mass tourism industry. Once again, as it had under Batista, Havana’s hotels became a venue for sex tourism, as young black women sold their bodies to escape the revolution’s privations. Remittances from Cuban-Americans, tourism and nickel mines, run by a Canadian firm, replaced sugar as the mainstay of the economy. The health-care and education systems were tapped for hard-currency earnings, too, with the development of biotechnology and of medical tourism. State companies were given more autonomy to manage their budgets and to trade. All these measures helped Cubans to get by, but they introduced new inequalities and resentments, and loosened the regime’s control over daily life.

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Then, unexpectedly, new benefactors appeared, in the form of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and, to a lesser extent, a booming China. Venezuelan subsidies grew to match the old Soviet largesse. With the economy growing again, Mr Castro reversed or reined in many of the economic reforms and became far more selective about foreign investment. As he had several times since 1959, he veered back towards Jacobinism, recruiting lumpen youth as “social workers” to wage war against corruption. In 2003, with the world distracted by the American invasion of Iraq, he launched a new political crackdown, arresting and imposing long jail sentences on 78 democracy activists, and executing three would-be migrants who hijacked a ferry in a desperate attempt to get to Florida. Two years later he declared the Special Period over.

Half-life in Havana

One evening in July 2006 Cuban state television broadcast a terse statement from Mr Castro saying that he had to undergo emergency abdominal surgery and was temporarily handing over his powers to a collective leadership headed by Raúl, his deputy. In 2008 Raúl formally replaced Fidel as Cuba’s president, and three years later as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party. He pushed out Fidel’s protégés and would-be successors, including Carlos Lage, the de facto prime minister. And he proceeded, quietly but methodically, to prepare Cuba for the time when a Castro would no longer be in charge.

Raúl is temperamentally Fidel’s opposite, a tidy, practical man, lacking his brother’s messianic streak. He is Sancho Panza to Fidel’s Don Quixote. They even looked the parts (Raúl is said to keep statues of Cervantes’s heroes at his house). There were no more late-night meetings. Raúl announced economic reforms (officially called “updating”) that abolished many of the petty restrictions suffered by Cubans, who could once again buy and sell houses and cars, stay in tourist hotels and have access to mobile phones and the internet. He cautiously began to dismantle Fidel’s centrally planned economy: more than 500,000 Cubans are now self-employed, working in small businesses or as private farmers. The island began to move inexorably towards a mixed economy. Some of Raúl’s advisers talked enthusiastically of the Chinese and Vietnamese models.

Fidel didn’t think much of that. China was a decadent consumerist society that had lost its values and its commitment to preserving equality, he thought. But he admitted to a foreign visitor, in an unguarded moment, “the Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more”. Fidel kept his criticisms largely private. He wrote a newspaper column in Granma, the official organ, for a while, but its main subject matter was his increasingly incoherent ramblings about what he saw as the apocalyptic problems facing the world. He became a spectral presence in his compound in Siboney, a leafy enclave in the west of Havana of mansions built by the sugar barons he had expropriated. He was occasionally photographed with visiting leaders looking increasing frail and doddery. But he had outlasted ten American presidents and all his enemies.

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True, he lived long enough to watch his revolution start to be dismantled. He even saw Cuba restore diplomatic relations with the United States in 2015 and an American president, Barack Obama, visit Havana and broadcast a call for the Cuban people “to choose their government in free elections”. Of course he did not approve. “Cuba’s president has taken steps in accordance with his prerogatives and powers,” he wrote stiffly in a letter published in 2015. But, he added, “I don’t trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged any words with them,” he growled.

No other man in the 20th century had ruled as long or, through a mixture of charisma and tyranny, dominated his country so completely. On one hot summer night during the days of penury that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, a crowd of disgruntled youngsters on Havana’s malecón, the seafront drive, threatened to overwhelm the police and start a riot. Fidel appeared out of the night, and talked them out of it. Even many of those Cubans who abhorred him were in awe of him. That will not apply to any of his successors, not even Raúl.

BERSIH 5.0 reminds Malaysians of their Diversity and Plurality


November 25, 2016

BERSIH 5.0 reminds Malaysians of  their Diversity and Plurality

by Hew Wai Weng

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The crowds at BERSIH 5.0 may not have hit previous heights, but their greater ethnic diversity is a positive sign, Hew Wai Weng writes.

Threats of violence by the anti-BERSIH shirted group, as well as the political fatigue of many Malaysians after the racialization of BERSIH 4.0 because of its low Malay turnout, had led many observers to expect an unenthusiastic level of public participation in BERSIH 5.0.

On the eve of BERSIH 5.0, many key leaders of BERSIH and opposition parties were arrested. The Police also blocked most of the road access to the gathering points of the BERSIH rally. Despite these obstacles, more than 50,000 people marched the streets in downtown Kuala Lumpur on  November 19, 2016 to demand fair and clean elections.

Even though the overall turnout was lower than the 100,000-strong crowd at BERSIH 4.0, a notably increased Malay participation in BERSIH 5.0 was an encouraging and positive sign, especially in the context of various attempts by the Najib-led UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) to racialize various dissident movements in Malaysia.

Here are my thoughts on the mobilization and participation of ethnic Malay in BERSIH 5.0, based on my observations and conversations with various participants at the rally. By concentrating on Malay participation, I do not intend to discredit the involvement of other ethnic groups, including Chinese, Indians and Orang Asli who have all contributed to the success of BERSIH 5.o. Besides ethnic composition, gender and class dimensions of the participants also deserve further attention.

At 10 am I joined the crowd at Masjid Negara, the National Mosque of Malaysia its peak, there were about 6,000 people and half of them were Malays. Many of the Malays gathered there were mobilised by political parties such as Keadilan (People’s Justice Party) and Amanah (National Trust Party, a new party formed by the progressives who left PAS, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), as well as Islamic-based NGOs such as IKRAM (Malaysian IKRAM Association) and ABIM (the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia).

As the crowd marched from Masjid Negara to Masjid Jamek, a mosque near to the Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square), many people joined along the way. In the beginning, the participants were quite ethnically mixed. But that changed once they marched through Pudu area. Thousands of spectators and protesters, many of them young Chinese, stood at both sides of the street, clapping hands and cheering when the protesters paraded through.

As the protesters walked from Masjid Jamek to KLCC (Kuala Lumpur Convention Center, where Petronas Twin Tower is located), I witnessed increasing numbers of young Malays among the crowd, and the crowd appeared more ethnically-mixed, with an estimated 40 per cent Malay among the participants.

By my estimate, at least 20,000 Malays attended Bersih 5. Although the number is lower than the amount at BERSIH 2.0 and 3.0 (approximately 30,000-40,000) when the Islamist party PAS were supportive of BERSIH and had mobilised its supporters, it is still an encouraging figure. It showed that without PAS endorsement, it is still possible for civil society and political parties to mobilise Malay Muslims to join rallies.

How were these Malays being mobilised? Keadilan and Amanah have committed to mobilising their members and supporters. Both parties have also helped in the pre-BERSIH convoys in many rural and semi-urban areas. These efforts might have convinced more Malays to join BERSIH 5.0. Aside from political party mobilisation, Muslims NGOs especially IKRAM and ABIM, have fully supported the rally. There is also an increasing number of young Malays present at Bersih 5. Some of them might have been mobilised or inspired by the August-held Tangkap MO1 (Arrest Malaysian Official 1) rally, organised by the university students. Others might be left-leaning Malay activists. Some also joined the rally on their own.

Although the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad openly urged Malaysians to join BERSIH 5.0, the crowd mobilised by its newly-formed political party, Bersatu (Malaysian United Indigenous Party) was ultimately not as large as some observers expected. Mahathir himself, however, had rushed back from a visit to Sudan in order to be present at the rally. His presence, together with the strong Malay turnouts at BERSIH 5.0, might help to convince the anti-Najib UMNO supporters to leave UMNO or at least to vote against UMNO in the coming elections.

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The UMNO Goons

I took a Grab car service before the BERSIH 5.0 rally. The middle-aged Malay driver told me, “Because of Najib, many of us have to suffer. I could not join BERISH, because I have to work more to make ends meet. I will morally support the causes of BERSIH.” Does his view represent the silent majority? Would increasing discontents towards Hadi-led PAS and Najib-led UMNO translate into votes against both UMNO and PAS in the elections, and contribute to a change of government in Malaysia?

A few factors will be crucial in determining whether or not we will see an increased support among Malays towards the change of government: first, the support of Malay youth, for which social media might be an important battleground; second, the support of rural Malays, yet it is a challenging task to counter UMNO’s rural patronage and money politics; third, a strong and efficient Malay leadership among the opposition parties in all the states, as a way to debunk UMNO’s allegation that DAP (Democratic Action Party) or the Chinese will dominate if UMNO loses power.

Last but not least, Malay support for a change in government will also depend on the ability of opposition parties, especially Bersatu and Amanah, to swing the support of anti-Najib UMNO members and anti-Hadi PAS followers towards them.

Hew Wai Weng is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. His research interests focus upon the intersections between ethnicity, religiosity, class and politics in Malaysia and Indonesia. He has been writing on Chinese Muslim identities, Hui migration patterns, and urban middle class Muslim aspirations in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Bersih 5 and the increase of the Malay discontents