Hundreds of Malaysians are taking part in vigils for the civil rights activist Maria Chin, who is still being held under terrorism legislation and is spending her ninth night in detention.
The main vigil is being held near Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, but solidarity gatherings are also being held in other cities and towns around the country, and abroad.
The campaign for Maria Chin’s release and the repeal of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA, was officially launched in the KL suburb of Petaling Jaya on Friday night.
Maria Chin, who is the chairwoman of the Bersih 2.0 Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, was arrested on November 18, the day before the Bersih 5 demonstration.
As she was detained under SOSMA, she can be held for up to 28 days. There has been no remand hearing.
Under SOSMA, the authorities can hold detainees for two days without legal representation.
Maria Chin is also being investigated under Section 124C of Malaysia’s Penal Code for allegedly attempting to commit an activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy. If convicted, she could be imprisoned for 15 years.
Activists are working around the clock to obtain the activist’s release, and her lawyers have succeeded in getting a habeas corpus hearing on Tuesday (November 29).
There is growing national and international outrage over the detention of a woman who has fought tirelessly for decades for women’s rights and for clean and fair elections.
After complaints that the Bersih leader had only a wooden board to sleep on, the authorities now say that she has been given a mattress and a pillow, but fellow activists are concerned that she may still have a light on in her 15-feet by 8-feet, windowless cell 24 hours a day. She is believed to still be in solitary confinement.
The Petaling Jaya community library that was the venue for Friday’s campaign launch was packed out, and there were crowds watching the event on a screen outside.
Maria Chin’s three sons, Azemi, Aziman and Azumin, spoke movingly about their love for their mother.
Azemi, the youngest, talked about his memories of how Maria Chin dealt with his childhood antics with kindness and understanding. “I don’t want just past memories. I want new memories,” he said.
“We can’t make new memories if she is not around. We already lost one parent. It doesn’t feel right to lose another one so fast.”
Azemi says he has always dodged hugs, but that has now changed. “I should have hugged her at every opportunity I could. I hope she comes back home so I can hug her once again.”
Aziman said the family had received an amazing amount of support, not only from people within Malaysia, but also from Malaysians living abroad.
It was really unnerving, he said, seeing his mother’s bed empty at night, knowing that they were in comfort while she was sleeping on a wooden board on the floor.
Azumin also spoke about his mother’s thoughtfulness, and her concern for her children and their friends. “We miss you a lot,” he said, “and love you so much.”
He made an emotive and heartfelt plea to the authorities: “Please let our mother come back home. Let us be a family again.”
Maria Chin’s husband, Yunus Ali, who was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1987 during the infamous Ops Lalang, died of kidney failure in 2010.
The film director, stand-up comedian, and political and social activist Hishamuddin Rais gave a particularly rousing speech at the campaign launch, and called for the overthrow of the regime that has been in power for sixty years.
People needed to come out onto the streets in large numbers, Hishamuddin said. “We have no more choice. The time is now.
“Citizens of all religions and all nationalities, we must work together in a long, protracted struggle to build up a new Malaysia.”
Bersih 2.0 deputy chairman Shahrul Aman Mohd Saari (pictured left) said that Maria Chin had touched people’s hearts.
He said that the authorities’ allegation that the Bersih leader had been collaborating with foreigners to bring down the Malaysian government was a recycled accusation from four years ago.
Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, has said Maria Chin was detained under SOSMA because the authorities are investigating links between Bersih and the billionaire George Soros and his Open Society Foundations network.
In 2012, the New Straits Times newspaper was sued by Bersih and other organisations and publicly apologised for making the allegations, Shahrul said. The newspaper admitted that the accusations had no basis in fact.
Shahrul pointed out that 34,000 Malaysians last year donated a total of 2.6 million ringgits (nearly 585,000 US$) to Bersih 2.0.
Lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan, who is the president of Malaysia’s National Human Rights Society (HAKAM), also spoke about the resurrection of false accusations against Bersih.
“They targeted Maria because of what Maria and her team did. The six weeks of the Bersih convoy reached into the heartland of Malaysia where they did not want us to go, and that is why they have done what they have done to Maria.
“They are doing it to punish her.”
Thousands more people came out for Bersih 5 because of the arrest of Maria Chin and other activists, Sreenevasan said.
“They threw her behind bars. They thought that would stop us, but it made us stronger.”
Sreenevasan said Maria Chin had travelled around Malaysia for her cause, “and walked with the people in the hot sun”.
To those who had placed Maria Chin in detention, she said: “What you are doing to her we will never forgive.”
To resounding applause, she added: “You detained her when she has done more for this country than all of you put together.”
SOSMA, Sreenevasan says “is the ISA in disguise”.
Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, who is the youngest daughter of the well-known activist, the late Irene Fernandez, and works with the NGO Tenaganita founded by her mother, spoke of their work with migrants and refugees who had been in detention.
“I know that even one day of detention really is painful; it’s difficult; it’s abusive.
“Detention is not just about being away in a room somewhere. It is your freedom that is taken away.”
Being in a tiny cell with a light on 24 hours a day, and not being able to communicate with your loved ones, amounted to torture, Maliamauv said.
Speaking about her mother, she said: “If she was alive today I guarantee you that she would be in front here, in her wheelchair, waving her walking stick, because she would be angry.”
The current fight, Maliamauv said, was not just about Maria Chin. “It is not just about getting rid of all the draconian laws, including SOSMA. It’s not just about fair and clean elections … this is also a fight against forgetting.
“We forget too easily that Maria is not the first human rights defender who has been arrested and detained. If we remember the many, many, many thousands of people who have been fighting and winning, we will know that this fight is not an impossible fight. It’s a long journey, but we can win.”
The fight must come from a place of love, Maliamauv says. “This is a revolution of love, not hate.”
Women’s rights activist Ivy Josiah (pictured left) also addressed the gathering. She spoke about knowing Maria Chin since the 1980s when the Bersih leader was organising solidarity events and calling for the release of people detained under the ISA.
“She was responsible, with the women’s groups, for making sure that this country had a domestic violence Act.”
On November 23, about five hundred women took part in a solidarity march from KL’s Padang Merbok to the parliament building, which was organised by the group Women 4 Maria.
The women handed over a memorandum to parliamentary representatives calling for Maria Chin’s immediate release, the return of all files and computers confiscated during the raid on Bersih’s office on November 18, and the abolition of SOSMA.
“Women walked because we believe that Maria has been arrested, jailed, and put into solitary confinement unfairly,” Ivy said.
Ivy says the authorities have underestimated the passion and professionalism of Bersih. They thought that if they arrested Maria Chin and other Bersih leaders, people would be afraid of joining Bersih 5, she said.
“But over 50,000 Malaysians proved that they were not scared.”
Maria Chin’s aim has been to encourage a real and widespread national conversation about clean and fair elections, Ivy Josiah says. Bersih went to 236 cities and towns in Malaysia during the convoy leading up to Bersih 5. “Bersih 5 was already a success even before November 19.”
Bersih 2.0 estimated the turnout on November 19 to be 120,000. Local media reports put the attendance at 40,000.
Opposition politician and environmental activist Wong Tack was loudly applauded when he called on Friday for tens of thousands people to come and join the KL vigil for Maria Chin.
“We need a Bersih 6 and a Bersih 7,”he said. “The struggle of Bersih 5 will continue from now on until the government changes.”
Wong Tack (pictured left) spoke of how much activists like himself had been inspired and encouraged by Maria Chin.
“We owe so much to her. We want to make sure that her suffering and her sacrifice will not be in vain.
“We must build on this and then we must fight hard not just for her release, but also for change in this nation.”
Malaysia, Wong Tack says, is at a make-or-break moment. The Bersih convoy had built networks across the nation, but 4.7 million people were still not registered to vote, he said. Bersih, he said, needed to go back to the villages.
“Let’s reach out to those people and set a target of getting one million new voters registered before next March. Our children’s future depends on us.
“We are going to build a new nation, a new leadership that is going to listen to the people; and restore the pride and dignity of this land and her citizens.”
The MP for Kota Raja, Siti Mariah Mahmud, from the Islamic breakaway party Amanah, spoke about the importance of civil society organisations providing checks and balances against government.
At the end of Friday’s campaign launch, activists placed keys on a structure that will become a monument to ten years of Bersih.
Wan Azizah Ismail, who is president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party, or PKR) and wife of the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, attaches a Bersih key. Next to her is the MP for Batu, Chua Tian Chang, better known as Tian Chua.
Art work is a major element in the campaign to free Maria Chin. Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, better known as Zunar, has already drawn a number of cartoons about the Bersih leader’s arrest. He was himself arrested on Saturday (November 26) and has been charged with alleged sedition for the tenth time.
Zunar’s arrest came a day after several members of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) disrupted the cartoonist’s exhibition at the George Town Literary Festival in Penang and threated him, demanding that his exhibition be taken down.
The cartoonist is also being investigated under section 504 of the penal code, and is subject to a travel ban.
Cartoon by Zunar
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