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M'sian rights group ban 'a bid to win rural support'

Publication Date : 10-01-2014


For the third time this month, the Malaysian government has acceded to demands by conservative Muslim groups, banning a human rights coalition that advocates freedom of religion.

The home ministry's ban on a group called Comango could sharpen divisions between conservative and liberal groups, analysts said. Comango has 54 members, including well-known organisations like Amnesty International.

The government gave two reasons for the ban. It said Comango had not registered its status as a society, and some of its members were also unregistered. It also objected to Comango's promotion of gay rights and the right to change religions.

Analysts said the ban - at a time of rising religious tensions - is a bid to cement rural Malay Muslim support. Malay Muslims form more than 60 per cent of the country's population. But they also warn the move could further alienate non-Malays.

"The ruling coalition has always banked on its development track record and ability to maintain political stability as winning cards in the election," said programme director Ibrahim Suffian of Merdeka Centre, a popular pollster. "Feeding into ethnocentric and religious issues is a double-edged sword."

Muslim groups had earlier attacked Comango for its report to the United Nations on human rights in Malaysia. In it, Comango urged Malaysia to uphold freedom of religion and to improve conditions for migrant workers, among other things. The report embarrassed the government, and Muslim groups called Comango's recommendations "anti-Islam".

"Whatever that Comango has lobbied for is against our country's values," said Abdullah Zaik Abdul Rahman, president of the Malaysian Muslim Solidarity group, or its Malay acronym Isma.

The ban means that Comango members can be jailed for up to three years or fined up to 5,000 ringgit (US$1,527), or both, if they organise or participate in coalition activities.

Comango said that as a coalition, it is not required to register with the Registrar of Societies. It added that it is seeking judicial review to remove the ban.

"Comango is appalled that the government is using Islam as a political tool to silence criticisms of human rights violations, and to demonise human rights defenders," it said Thursday.

Religious issues are a touchy subject in Malaysia's pluralistic society, and getting more sensitive.

Last week, the Islamic authorities raided the Bible Society of Malaysia and confiscated 321 Iban and Malay-language Bibles. This week, officials made a U-turn and said they would not allow Hard Rock Cafe to open an outlet in administrative capital Putrajaya, as the outlet would be selling alcohol.

Defending religious issues helps Umno, the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional-led government, boost its Islamic credentials, said Ibrahim. It also diverts attention from the increasing cost of living and outrage over rising government spending.

Dr Faisal Hazis, an analyst from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, said Umno is increasingly reliant on rural Malay voters. "But as the urban-rural divide narrows within the next few years, such a stance may not resonate with as many Malays as before."


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