Sunday, January 20, 2013

Britain ‘pressing’ for poll reforms in Malaysia

Clare Rewcastle Brown
 | January 20, 2013
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Malaysia headed by British MP Tom Greaterex has repeatedly raised free and fair elections with premiers Najib Tun Razak and David Cameron.
LONDON: Malaysia’s growing civil rights movement and its ability to mobilise tens of thousands onto the streets of KL has clearly not gone unnoticed in the corridors of the Whitehall Government in the United Kingdom.
Foreign Office officials who attended a briefing session provided by the Human Rights organisation Suaram at the House of Commons last week gave assurances that they were fully aware of the democracy issues raised by the Bersih movement and supportive of the calls for reform by civil rights groups in Malaysia.
At the briefing, which was chaired by the MP Tom Greatrex, a Shadow Energy Minister and member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Malaysia, the officials said that they have repeatedly raised the matter of free and fair elections and also election observers with politicians both in Malaysia and the UK.
“In all our briefings right up to the highest level we keep pressing home about free and fair elections and election observers,” confirmed one of a number of officials who were at the briefing.
When asked what “the highest level” meant, one of the officials who declined to be named said: “With Prime Ministers Najib and Cameron”.
The briefing last week, which came hard on the heels of the massive turn out for the Himpunan Kebangkitan Rakyat rally at Merdeka Stadium on Jan 12, took place in a Committee Room at the House of Commons and was attended by politicians, NGOs (including Transparency International, Article 19, Reporters Without Borders, Global Witness) and local journalists.
Bersih leader S Ambiga gave a Skype address, which was then picked up by Suaram’s Cynthia Gabriel, who gave an overview of the main human rights issues in Malaysia.
She focused on concerns about the Security Offences Act, Peaceful Assembly Act, Amendments to the Evidence Act, the use of capital punishment and the large number of deaths in police custody.
The Suaram director also briefed the gathering on some of the major corruption issues that have caused a growing lack of confidence in Malaysia’s institutions.
The press notice for the briefing highlighted the new bilateral trading initiatives between Britain and Malaysia, which makes this a particularly delicate time for relations between the two countries.
The past year has seen numerous official visits by politicians and royalty travelling both ways and the setting up of a Working Group to strengthen trading relations.
The focus is around major arms negotiations for the possible purchase of Typhoon jets, made by the UK defence giant, BAE Systems.
Press freedom critical
According to Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron speaking during his own visit to KL last year: “The era of benign neglect is over. Britain is back, back to do business with Malaysia”.
Suaram while welcoming the closer ties, however warned that the UK should not ignore civil rights and human rights issues if it was coming to do business, but rather should use its engagement to influence positive changes.
Another member of the Foreign Office team, who was introduced as their Human Rights Representative also intervened to say that the UK Government’s policy was to take every opportunity to encourage other countries to support human rights.
He said his job was to ensure that no export licences would be granted that could end up infringing human rights and added that the FCO runs a Democracy Fund to help support human rights initiatives in countries including Malaysia.
He  invited NGOs, who were looking for support to run such projects to visit their website and to apply.
“I do not criticise foreign government…” he said “…but we do a lot on human rights”.
Former Foreign Office mandarin Tim Lankester, who is the author of a recent book on the Pergau Dam affair, was also at the briefing and he confirmed that there had been many questions and concerns about possible corruption during the arms for aid scandal.
“We didn’t find the evidence but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t corruption”, he said.
He went on to say that Malaysia had a lot to learn from Indonesia in terms of freedom of the press.
“Freeing the press has become absolutely critical in achieving greater accountability in that country (Indonesia)” he said, explaining that by comparison the Malaysian media is totally controlled by the ruling coalition.
Clare Rewcastle-Brown is the editor of Sarawak Report and founder of Radio Free Sarawak. She was also on the panel at this briefing and spoke in favour of greater press freedom in Malaysia.

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