Ever since his forced retirement as Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir has been trying in vain to claim that Operation Lalang was not his doing but that of the police. This attempt at whitewashing his record seems all the more urgent since he has joined the Opposition. In his haste to pull the wool over the eyes of those who may not remember Operation Lalang by blaming it on the police, Mahathir has overlooked something that is so elementary to the ISA, namely, that it is the Home Minister (ie. Mahathir at the time) who signed the two-year detention order after the first sixty days of solitary confinement. When he signed those 2-year detention orders near the end of 1988, he would have noticed a stark fact – all the detainees were Opposition leaders and other dissidents while all the BN detainees had been conveniently released during the sixty days! The IGP didn’t sign those detention orders – Mahathir did!
This living in denial is not surprising since Operation Lalang was Mahathir’s worst abuse of power during his 23-year rule. It happened to be his most desperate attempt at clinging to power. We know that 1987 was a time during his term when he was faced with the biggest threat to his rule, with Team B under Tengku Razaleigh challenging the results of the UMNO elections. A court decision in Team B’s favour would have meant the end of Mahathir’s grasp on power.
In the run up to Operation Lalang and before the assault on the judiciary resulting in the sacking of the Lord President and several other Supreme Court judges, the ruling party had orchestrated a tense situation in the country by creating various “sensitive” issues involving the sending of non-Mandarin qualified administrators to the Chinese schools, conversion of Muslims to Christianity and even threatened to organize a 500,000-people UMNO rally in the capital. All this was to justify unleashing ‘Operation Lalang’ to deal with the so-called “enemies” identified by the state.
Dr Mahathir cannot escape from the historical records in, among others, my 445 Days under Operation Lalang, the DAP’s The Real Reason, CARPA’s Tangled Web, Amnesty International’s Operation Lalang: Detention Without Trial under ISA, K.Das/Suaram’s The Why? Papers.
This is what the Ops Lalang detainees (including myself, Karpal Singh, Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, Mohamad Sabu, Nasir Hashim) said in our Declaration on the first anniversary of our detention:
“The year since this dastardly ‘Operation Lalang’ has been an outrage for all freedom-loving and democratic-minded Malaysians. The Mahathir Administration has made even more brutal attacks on the democratic institutions in this country. The doctrine of separation of powers has been dealt a serious blow by the threats to the Judiciary not only through legislative changes but also by the scandalous suspension of five Supreme Court judges as well as the Lord President. The subsequent dismissal of the Lord President and two of the judges demonstrated the depths to which the Mahathir Administration is prepared to go to stay in power. Civil liberties have been further eroded by new changes to the law. It is quite clear, therefore, that this so-called ‘Operation Lalang’ was a signal for calculated repression and intimidation of the Malaysian people and to divert attention from the irresolvable problems confronting the ruling party and coalition.”
Judging from the comments by eminent persons both local and international, we can see clearly who they held responsibile for this dastardly affair:
- The Tunku, Malaysia’s First Prime Minister:
“UMNO was facing a break-up. The Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s hold on the party appeared critical when election rigging was alleged to have given him a very narrow victory over Tengku Razaleigh. The case alleging irregularities brought by UMNO members was pending in court. If the judgement went against him he would have no choice but to step down. So he had to find a way out of his predicament. A national crisis had to be created to bring UMNO together as a united force to fight a common enemy – and the imaginary enemy in this case was the Chinese community…It’s a police state when you can go and arrest people at will without giving any reason other than they think they are a security risk … I do not concede Dr. Mahathir’s contention that his measures are predicated solely on the extreme tension between Malays and Chinese last month which brought the country close to serious racial rioting…It’s not a question of Chinese against the Government but his own party, UMNO who are against him”.
( K.Das/ SUARAM: ‘The White paper on the October Affair and the Why? Papers’, SUARAM Petaling Jaya 1989: 10)
- Tun Hussein Onn (Malaysia’s third Prime Minister):
“The ISA is a measure aimed at preventing the resurgence of the earlier communist threat to the nation … During my term of office as Prime Minister, I made every effort to ensure that the pledges of my predecessors, that the powers under the ISA would not be misused to curb lawful political opposition and democratic citizen activity, were respected”.
(Affidavit by Tun Hussein Onn on behalf of Dr.Chandra Muzaffar at the latter’s habeas corpus application in November, 1987).
- Amnesty International:
“On the basis of all the available evidence, including the White Paper and subsequent discussions with government authorities held in October 1988, Amnesty International has concluded that the government has not substantiated this claim, and has failed to show that any of the forty detainees served with renewable two-year detention orders at the end of the investigation period had in any way used or advocated violence.”
(AI: Operation Lalang, Detention Without Trial Under the ISA, 20 December 1988, p.25)
- Inter-Parliamentary Union:
“The delegation considers that, according to the norms of international public law, the two objectives are not incompatible with one another and that the concept of national security is in no way superior or opposed to the principles of human rights…. The delegation is thus led to note that in Malaysia, even without a state of exception having been proclaimed, the Executive is exercising powers which are normally within the purview of the Judiciary….”
(IPU: Report on the mission of 21-27 November 1988, p.25)
- International Commission of Jurists:
“The Internal Security Act has become a tool for silencing political opposition. It has allowed the governments of both Malaysia and Singapore to intimidate its citizens by making improper arrests based on unsubstantiated claims of communist or other subversive activity. Detention under the ISA facilitates the use of torture and mistreatment during interrogation, as governments are not publicly accountable for their actions under ISA.”
(ICJ: Briefing Paper for the Sub-Commission on Malaysia and Singapore, August 1988, p16)
“…the government offered no evidence that those arrested engaged in violence or illegal activity; in fact, many are well-known for their efforts to promote racial harmony. In this respect, we note that most of the remaining detainees have been declared ‘prisoners of conscience’ by Amnesty International. Moreover, the government handed down long-term detention orders sixty days after the initial arrests, and well after the passing of last year’s racial tensions. Thus, even if one were to argue that the initial arrests were necessary to preserve public order – and Asiawatch does not concede that this was the case – the government cannot currently contend in good faith that there exists the kind of extraordinary circumstances that might fairly justify denial of the rights to a trial.” (Asiawatch: Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights, July 1988, p.9)
- European Parliament:
“Regretting, in particular, that the detainees include the Leader and several members of the Opposition, as well as Christian pastors and Research Director of the Malaysian Chinese Resource and Research Centre; Calls on the Malaysian Government to institute an independent enquiry by the judiciary into the arrest and into the use of the Internal Security Act in general; Urges the Malaysian Government to release the remaining detainees as a measure of reconciliation between the races and between the parties; …”
(European Parliament Resolution on Political Prisoners in Malaysia, 7 July 1988)
- Australian Parliamentarians:
“We, the undersigned members of the Australian Parliament, wish to express to you our concern over the observance of accepted human rights standards in Malaysia. We regard the laws under which these people were arrested as unworthy of a democratic state and we believe that the continued detention of these prisoners of conscience to be a gross violation of human rights”.
(Letter by 105 Australian Parliamentarians to the Malaysian Prime Minister, 17 March 1988)
- The Asian Wall Street Journal:
“Dr.Mahathir’s chosen measures are not worthy of a country that hopes to position itself as a forward-looking democracy … Dr.Mahathir is no doubt correct in his diagnosis that Malaysia has big problems. The fundamental problem, however, is not that people are protesting. It is that many have legitimate grievances that their government apparently wishes not to hear.”
(AWSJ editorial, ‘Road to Dictatorship’, 2-11-87).
- The Malaysian Bar Council:
“With these ministerial preventive detention orders made on so many individuals, including the Leader of the Opposition and other prominent opposition Members of Parliament, I cannot help wondering how our government could continue calling itself a parliamentary democracy … The solemn promise given in Parliament in 1960 by the then Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak … that this law will never be used to stifle political dissent in this country appears to have been breached “.
(The President of the Bar Council, Param Cumaraswamy, quoted in The Asian Wall Street Journal, 28-12-87).
Apologise to all who were tortured as well
Dr Mahathir must also take responsibility for all the allegations of torture made by Operation Lalang victims. The sixty days of solitary confinement are already a gross example of mental torture. Dr Nasir Hashim, Chow Chee Keong, Irene Xavier among others have graphically described being physically tortured by the Special Branch while under solitary confinement during the first sixty days. This is Yeshua Jamaluddin’s affidavit at his habeas corpus hearing in October 1988:
“On one occasion, I was knocked to the ground and I injured my back. Since then, I have been passing blood in my urine and have been suffering from pains in my lower back constantly. In March 1988 and in July 1988, I was warded at the University Hospital, Kuala Lumpur for treatment of my kidney condition. I have still not recovered…On another occasion during interrogation, Inspector Yusoff forced me to strip naked and to enact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He also forced me to crawl on the floor in a naked state…then a police constable forced me to stand on one leg with both my arms outstretched holding my slippers. He made me remain in this position for two hours. He then called in a woman constable and her young daughter and asked them to look at me saying: ‘This Malay is not aware of who he is. He changed his religion. He has no shame!”
Torture under the ISA has been perpetrated with impunity by the Malaysian Special Branch ever since it was enacted in 1960. Unfortunately for Dr Mahathir, the principle of ministerial responsibility means that as the Home Minister and Prime Minister at the time, he is ultimately responsible for Operation Lalang and all the atrocities committed under this dragnet.