In 1987, Malaysia witnessed one of its darkest moments in history when Operasi Lalang was unleashed. The crackdown resulted in 106 persons being detained without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Not only did this cause grave distress to the detainees and their family members, Operasi Lalang also generated a sense of indignation among many Malaysians who uphold human rights. After their release, several of these ISA detainees and their family members, lawyers, and social activists came together in 1989 to found SUARAM with the vision to protect and promote human rights in a society that is just, equal, and democratic.
Through these 30 years of deteriorating human rights conditions, SUARAM has expanded its work beyond the Internal Security Act (ISA) to include reform of the police force, deaths in custody, refugees and migrant workers, indigenous peoples’ rights, free and fair elections, local democracy, corruption, environment, workers’ rights, death penalty and freedom of expression, assembly and association. SUARAM has been instrumental in forming major coalitions such as Gagasan Rakyat, the opposition to the Bakun dam and has played key roles in various movements including the Reformasi movement in 1998.
The repeal of the ISA and the Emergency Ordinance (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) in 2011 was a major milestone for SUARAM and its partners after a long arduous battle against the oppressive law. Suaram has also contributed to research and publications on important Malaysian public policies and peoples’ history through the years, notably on arms spending and energy policies; on May 13, Kampung Medan and the independence movement; People Before Profits, Policing the Malaysian Police, the ISA and Operation Lalang, GE13 Malaysian Civil Society Demands.
In 2014, SUARAM celebrated its 25th anniversary. While there have been successes over the years, we are still faced with many human rights challenges. Detention without trial now comes in the guise of new draconian laws such as the Prevention of Crimes Act, Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, and Peaceful Assembly Act. The Malaysian police still gets away with impunity by refusing to accede to the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Committee. Our basic freedoms of expression, assembly and association continue to be violated. Freedom of religion is still elusive as the “Allah” and “hudud” controversies rage. Corruption remains one of the major problems in the public arena. The rising cost of living requires reform of strategic public policies and we are still far away from achieving the objectives of good governance and electoral reform regardless of which coalition is in power.
In 2018, Malaysia underwent the first historic change of administration following the 14th General Elections. The Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Mahathir Mohamad won the election on a manifesto of reform. The euphoria from the change in administration swiftly evaporated when key institutional reforms were delayed by Mahathir’s administration. The administration was soon challenged by a growing rhetoric of race and religion by political opposition and the uncertainty of the leadership transition promised leading up to the election. It was in the midst of these uncertainty, SUARAM celebrated its 30th Anniversary.
Suaram vows to continue to campaign for civil rights, rule of law, freedom of expression, association and assembly, mother tongue education, freedom of religion and the ratification of international human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Key achievements of Suaram