PENANG, Malaysia - A United Nations report pointing to alleged links between Malaysia's ruling coalition and al-Qaeda has stirred up a furor here, with the authorities vehemently denying the links. But even as they deny the terror links, they are already talking about beefing up the Internal Security Act (ISA) so that detentions can no longer be challenged in court.
Some analysts are pointing out that the authorities here are getting a taste of what they themselves have dished out. Since mid-2001, the authorities have detained dozens of individuals on suspicion of militant activities without giving them a chance to defend themselves in open court or backing their claims with evidence.
Malaysian officials are still bristling after the ruling coalition was linked with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines last week. At the center of the controversy is Dr Rohan Gunaratna, whose book Inside al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, (see Asia Times Online's review) was the basis of a United Nations Security Council monitoring group report that drew the alleged link between the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition and al-Qaeda via the MILF.
The UN report drew ideological and political links between the MILF and a string of Malaysian groups: apart from the Barisan Nasional, the reported listed the Movement of Islamic Unity (APU), Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), the Malaysian Indian Muslim Congress (KIMMA), the Islamic Front of Malaysia (IFM), the Front Malaysian Islamic Council (FIMC), and the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (MIYM).
APU was an opposition coalition that has been defunct for several years now, PAS and KIMMA are both legitimate political parties, while few have even heard of IFM, FIMC and MIYM.
Although these other groups were mentioned, it is Malaysia's ruling coalition that is feeling the most discomfort. A scathing though defensive article by the pro-establishment New Sunday Times said the ruling coalition's links with the MILF came about as a result of the Mindanao peace process, which Malaysia was requested by the Philippines government to broker. "All these attempts to paint Malaysia as a terrorist haven seem concerted and with a very sinister motive," the article quoted an unnamed ruling party member as saying.
Whether or not there is any basis for the claim, the Malaysian government is furious with the UN report. Even before the October 12 Bali blast, approved foreign direct investment in the country had plummeted. Since October 12, there has been some concern that tourism earnings might be jeopardized as visitors could shun the whole region. And now this - the UN report.
The tragedy is that all these publicly unproved allegations of militant links is having an effect on ordinary citizens, the economy and Malaysia's usual ties with the developed world. Australia has already canceled two major events in Malaysia while it is increasingly difficult for Malaysian students and professionals alike to obtain a visa to the United States, a key trading partner, even for legitimate business.
One Malaysian professional who made three flights from Penang to Kuala Lumpur to go to the US Embassy has still not yet received his visa, forcing him to defer his appointment in Washington. "The subtle message I am getting is that we are not welcome in the United States," he told Asia Times Online.
Political scientist Farish Noor had already criticized Gunaratna's book in a piece that was first published on Internet website Malaysiakini on July 6: "The major problem comes where Gunaratna tries to weave an elaborate byzantine narrative about al-Qaeda's alleged linkages with other Islamist organizations and movements worldwide.
"If and when proof is required, the author merely cites 'interviews with security agencies' in various countries all over the world."
For a change, opposition politicians are looking at the government to see how they will respond to the allegations in the UN report. In April 1991, police had accused a string of reformasi activists, largely from the fledgling opposition party of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim of involvement in a militant plot to topple the government. Ten activists were detained under the ISA without trial and five are still being held.
But last month, the Federal Court ruled that the initial 60-day detentions of five of those detainees were made in bad faith. Those still in custody, however, have not been released, as the authorities argue that their subsequent ongoing detention for two years was made under a different section of the Act, under the orders of the home minister. Critics says those orders are flawed as they were based - or should have been based - on the findings of the initial 60-day investigation, now ruled to have been made in bad faith.
Television stations this year ran clips of a bloody clash between police and villagers in the late 1980s in an attempt to portray the opposition party, PAS, as prone to extremist tendencies.
In another development, the so-called Malaysian Militant Group (initially referred to as the Malaysian Mujahidin Group, or KMM) was cleared of allegations linking it to a bank robbery last year in central Selangor state. Deputy Home Minister Chor Chee Heung was reported as saying on Monday that the group has not been involved in any robbery cases, though they were suspected of trying to seize arms.
The group has also reportedly been blamed for an assortment of criminal acts: arms robbery at a police station, the murder of a state assembly member, and the bombing of a few churches and temples. Authorities say they represent a security threat.
But in June last year, ISA detainee Zainon Ismail told a Malaysian Human Rights Commission inquiry: "I feel sad that the media [are] doing this. The accusations that we had robbed a bank and killed a state assemblyman, all these accusations made by the media have had a negative effect on us and our children.
"I was also accused as being the founder of the KMM, but all this is just a creation of the police. There is no such thing as the KMM," Zainon said.
There are now close to 120 detainees being held without trial under the ISA with close to 70 suspected of militant activities. The detained alleged militants, all of them Muslims, are a motley unheard-of lot, including a chicken seller, an ice-cream vendor, engineers, company executives, a welder, lecturers, technicians, a water-meter reader, and taxi drivers. Some of them are said to have links with or training in Afghanistan and Pakistan. None of the ISA detainees has been brought to trial.
Stung by the Federal Court decision ruling that the earlier arrests of the reformasi activists were mala fide or made in bad faith, the authorities plan to tighten up on the already draconian ISA.
Much to the alarm of human-rights groups, the government appears set on removing the ISA altogether from the purview of the judiciary. "The security of this country is the absolute right of the executive," were the chilling words of Rais Yatim, a minister in the Prime Minister's Department.
That spells even more bad news for those alarmed by the prospect of sliding even further down the slippery slope of authoritarianism