KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia’s prime minister on Thursday, November 27, abandoned his pledge to repeal a controversial sedition law critics say is used to silence political opponents, drawing warnings from the opposition of a lurch to authoritarian rule.
Prime Minister Najib Razak promised in 2012 to abolish the British colonial-era Sedition Act, one of several reform pledges made to boost dwindling voter support for his decades-old government.
But Najib on Thursday told his party’s annual congress that the law would be retained and even enhanced, apparently bowing to pressure from ruling-party conservatives who are advocating a tougher hand in response to a series of electoral setbacks.
“As prime minister, I have decided that the Sedition Act will be maintained,” Najib told delegates from his United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
He said the law will “be strengthened and made more effective”, drawing rousing applause.
Critics accuse the government of using the law to intimidate and silence an accelerating opposition movement that has threatened UMNO’s hold on power.
Around three dozen people – mostly opposition politicians, including leader Anwar Ibrahim, and their political allies – have been investigated, charged or convicted for sedition this year.
The crackdown, which has accelerated in recent months, has been harshly condemned by rights groups and criticized by the US embassy in Malaysia.
Anwar accused Najib of caving to “rightists and racists” in the ruling establishment who are “instilling a culture of fear” to cling to power.
“This is the start of authoritarian rule by Najib,” Anwar told Agence France-Presse.
“Of course, it is a regressive policy. They will use the sedition law to intimidate the legitimate voice of the opposition.”
The Sedition Act was imposed by the British to quell a communist rebellion decades ago.
It outlaws speech deemed to incite unrest, racial or religious tensions, or insult Muslim-majority Malaysia’s ceremonial Islamic royalty. It can carry a term of up to three years in jail.
UMNO has dominated Malaysia since independence in 1957, presiding over decades of enviable economic development.
But its support is shriveling amid persistent allegations of corruption, abuse of power, environmental degradation, and its policy of stoking racial and religious divisions to shore up its Muslim ethnic Malay political base.
Malays make up more than 60% of the multi-racial country’s population. – Rappler.com
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