In 2007, some lawyers again confronted the Malaysian state, now headed by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. They joined with an ethnic minority- the Hindu Indians-who were out on the streets in the thousands. They were protesting against their ‘third class citizenship’, referring to their treatment historically as less worthy than the majority Malays and the economically powerful Chinese.13 The Hindu Rights Action Force was formed to campaign for reparations for the transportation of their ancestors from India as indentured laborers a century ago. They also seek equality for the Hindu masses who mainly live in poverty. Education reform is high on their agenda as government funding for Hindu students is far less than for Malays; and Hindus are also disadvantaged by the array of affirmative action policies which were introduced in 1971 (after the 1969 race riots in which Malays attacked Chinese-Malays, apparently because they saw their power as a threat to the advancement of the Malays). Hindraf also highlighted the employment sector where they are largely confined to unskilled and low paid jobs, when they can find work. Finally, they were outraged by the sudden destruction of several Hindu temples which they alleged reflects religious discrimination by authorities.
Human rights lawyer Malik Imtiaz was one who had previously expressed concern about an advancing ‘Islamicisation’ of this multicultural society,14 and Hindraf, as well as moderate Muslims and secular Malays, is worried that the move against the temples is a further sign of such a trend. Although one Christian commentator argued in 2006 that ‘ the rights of non-Muslims are actually expanding under the Prime Minister’s liberal leadership’, referring to Badawi, at least one church has been destroyed since then as well as the community and religious buildings of a hybrid cult, Sky Kingdom.15
Hindraf is led by a small group including several lawyers, one of whom, P. Uthayakumar, was arrested and charged with two other leaders, three days before the scheduled demonstration on 25 November. The charges were dropped as the police could not produce evidence in court of just what the defendants had said: they had spoken in Tamil which the police were unable to understand!
At the demonstration, with an estimated 10,000 taking part, the police waded in with tear gas and water cannons. Many protestors were beaten, while others were roughly herded into police vans. Eighty were charged with unlawful assembly, while thirty one were charged with attempted murder! According to police, demonstrators had used bricks and iron pipes, injuring police. Subsequently the charges were dropped. Badawi said that protests were unacceptable, and indicated the state would take a firm stand if they were repeated.
The Malaysian state certainly has the weapons for suppression and the will to use them. Indeed, Badawi threatened to use the Internal Security Act, a British colonial legacy, against future Hindraf protestors.16 Under the ISA police are allowed to detain people for two years without trial, or even charge; this is on top of a 60 day period of detention in solitary confinement without access to a lawyer. As a former detainee has remarked, the police use the ISA‘to brutal effect’. Indeed, when Anwar was detained in 1998, he was immediately beaten up by the Chief of Police! And a number of witnesses against him were apparently tortured in detention before ‘confessing’ and providing incriminating evidence against him (which later most retracted).17
It is not surprising that in relation to the Anwar struggles, a BBC correspondent was moved to say ‘ the lawyers were heroes to the people of Malaysia’. Whether their heroism will be further tested under the Badawi government remains to be seen. It may well be, as the economic position of the Hindu Malaysians is unlikely to improve greatly, especially in the short term. There seems in recent years to have been a struggle over the reduction of minority rights generally, including those of women especially regarding family law. Malaysia could well see black clad jurists back on the streets seeking to protect civil and human rights in that still highly segmented society.
It is in the Philippines where lawyers are under the most serious threat as they continue to confront the corrupt and repressive regime of President Arroyo, ally of Bush and panderer to multi-national capital.18 Latest available figures indicate that during her tenure over 900 people have been the victims of “extra-judicial killings” and some 200 have been “disappeared”. Hundreds more have survived attempted assassination, and many hundreds have been abducted and tortured. Numerous international inquiries leave no doubt that the reign of terror has been largely the responsibility of the Armed Forces of the Philippines using its operational plan Freedom Watch to oppose ‘terrorism’, Communist guerrillas and, to a lesser extent Moro (largely Muslim) forces in the southern islands. The Philippine National Police are also involved in the repression.
Of the extra-judicial killings, nearly 30 have been lawyers, several of whom were judges, while two recent victims were successive Legal Advisors to the Commission on Elections. The others were human rights activists working with social movement organizations and trade unions, fisherfolk , peasant and teacher associations. Effectively, there has been a military-police onslaught directed at resistance leadership reminiscent of the Phoenix Program run by the Americans during the Vietnam war. The Americans have for years advised, supplied and trained the Filipino military and police.
In addition to their “resistance” work with civil society groups, Filipino lawyers have been active in challenging ‘war on terror’ legislation (ironically entitled the Human Security Act) as unconstitutional; constantly challenging arrests and detentions which are violative of human rights; organizing submissions to government and international agencies on human rights violations. They have also played a significant role in monitoring intimidation and corrupt election practices whereby Arroyo has maintained her position. Environmental issues are also pursued in a context of violence and intimidation, as mining companies, several Australian, are in the process of destroying many communities. Resistance to the mining has been widespread and determined. The companies have been protected by the military and police, and some private security operatives (including an ex-general who is thought to be responsible for many of the killings and disappearances before his retirement last year). Lawyers, and others, assisting the local people have been killed.