Suaram stands for Suara Rakyat Malaysia (The Voice of the Malaysian People). No one organisation can represent the voice of an entire nation, but no one organisation has likely done more for the voiceless of Malaysia than Suaram.
Who is Suaram?
Born in the aftermath of Ops Lalang, Suaram has been at the forefront of defending human rights in Malaysia since 1989 (when this author was only nine years old).
Suaram was formed by ex-ISA detainees and their family support groups to campaign for the abolition of the ISA. Over the years, its issues of concern grew to encompass a much wider scope.
In recent times, Suaram has been among the most vociferous advocates for fundamental human rights in Malaysia, such as the right to assemble freely, the right to free and fair elections, the rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of refugees, the right not to be detained without trial, the right not to be beaten to death in a police lock-up and so on.
As an organisation like Malaysiakini is the grande dame of online news in Malaysia, so is Suaram – along with organisations like Aliran – thegrande dame of Malaysian civil society, possessed of a solid track record in the best traditions of human rights advocacy.
Ever at the front lines, anyone who has ever been to a human rights forum, candlelight vigil or street rally over the years will recognise the familiar faces of Suaram staff.
Suaram also publishes the Human Rights Reports, which for many years has been the authoritative document of Malaysia’s human rights record, and perhaps the only locally produced systematic, consistent analysis of human rights abuses in Malaysia.
Ever since it was formed, Suaram has been fearlessly critical of any and all government action that ran counter to the principles of human rights. Time and time again, they have named and shamed abuses of power from the lowliest constable or civil servant to the prime minister himself.
Yet, it is only now, in what seems to be the first time ever, that a “council” has convened consisting of no less than six government agencies – the Companies Commission of Malaysia (CCM), the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), Bank Negara, the Registrar of Societies (ROS), the police and the Home Ministry – with the sole purpose of prosecuting Suaram.
Why is Suaram being attacked now?
“Altantuya” and “Scorpene” seem to the two words that first come to mind.
Over the last year or two, Suaram began working on the Scorpene commission scandal. They led the effort to initiate proceedings in French investigative courts that are now examining the case in great detail.
The scandals surrounding the company that sold us these Scorpene submarines, DCNS, is no stranger to the French public.
In two separate cases, the sale of similar naval craft by DCNS and the commissions that surrounded these sales were widely suspected to be linked to the deaths of eight and 11 people in Taiwan (1993-1994) and Pakistan (2002) respectively.
Could Altantuya, Malaysia (2006) be the latest death on that list?
The Scorpene case and its hundreds of millions of questionable commissions is a matter of grave public interest. There are issues surrounding the practice of massive corruption as well as what Malaysian courts decided was a murder by two low-ranking policeman (with no apparent motive).
Unable to find either truth or justice in the Malaysian courts, Suaram took the case to France, where it has brought unprecedented international shame upon Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, who was both deputy prime minister and defence minister at the time the Scorpenes were purchased.
The desperate viciousness of the guilty?
A guilty conscience can drive a person to do increasingly desperate things.
The Malaysian government apparently fails to see how its unprecedented, unjustified and heavy-handed action against Suaram following their recent work on the Scorpene scandal will likely be seen as an admission of guilt to the Malaysian public.
If indeed the prime minister and his government have nothing to hide, what can possibly explain their desperate use of every available means at their disposal in attempt to discredit Suaram?
Why not simply refute all their allegations with transparent facts, and answer French subpoenas to prove their innocence in courts with a smattering more credibility than say, the courts of Malaysia?
Malaysians are sick and tired of political leaders that pilfer the nation’s coffers and abuse their power to enrich themselves and their cronies.
The government’s attempt to intimidate and bully Suaram into silence merely because they cannot bear to see their actions being exposed to the cold light of day will no doubt incur even more public wrath and electoral repercussions.
Standing together with Suaram
Malaysian civil society rallied quickly to the defence of Suaram. In a show of strength and solidarity, it soon became clear that the message to the government was: if you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us.
This solidarity is real and deeply felt within this community, and the word community here is not used lightly.
By way of brief personal reminiscing, I remember attending annual Suaram fundraising dinners over the past few years. At these dinners, the organisers would sometimes do a small slideshow showing activists who had passed on during the previous year. It was an emotional experience, and I remember thinking that no one who made it to that slideshow at the end of their journey could possibly consider their life as one led in vain.
(I cannot help but remember here Toni Kassim (left), who one year charmed us all at one such dinner with a touching rendition of Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘Like A Star’, accompanied by Elizabeth Wong on the guitar. Not long thereafter I think she herself was one more picture on that slideshow.)
As Suaram faces this onslaught, we can take heart that the members of civil society in Malaysia are baptised in fire and not ones to cower under the posturings of a morally bankrupt government.
As politicians and governments come and go, we have good reason to hope that institutions like Suaram will continue to always stand for what is right, without fear or favour. Our duty is to ensure that they do not stand alone.
NATHANIEL TAN remembers when Suaram and others were there for him.