WASHINGTON - THE United States underscored on Wednesday the rights of Malaysians to hold peaceful protests, after Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's government swiftly suppressed mass rallies and threatened to use a law to detain protesters indefinitely without trial.
'We believe citizens of any country should be allowed to peacefully assemble and express their views,' a US State Department official said when commenting on the crackdown of unprecedented street protests in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur this month.
One called for electoral reform which drew some 30,000 people, and another by at least 8,000 ethnic Indians last Sunday was aimed at highlighting racial discrimination.
The rallies were the biggest in a decade and took place despite bans ordered by police, who broke up the gatherings with tear gas, water cannons and baton charges.
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, did not go beyond his succinct statement, which was the first reaction by Washington on the rare outpouring of anti-government dissent in Malaysia.
The protests led to a veiled threat by Mr Abdullah on Tuesday to use the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) that allows for detention without trial to stem the dissent.
Rights groups, who have campaigned to have the ISA abolished, cautioned the prime minister against using such laws.
'It is a huge mistake for Prime Minister Abdullah to even consider using this unjust law to crack down on peaceful demonstrators,' said T. Kumar, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific advocacy director in Washington.
'We strongly urge him not to use it.' Amnesty has also called on the US authorities to check whether excessive force was used in quelling the recent demonstrations and to oppose any use of the ISA against peaceful protests, he said.
Mr Abdullah argued that the ISA was 'a preventive measure to spare the nation from untoward incidents that can harm the prevailing peace and harmony and create all sorts of adverse things.' 'So, I don't know (when to invoke the ISA), but ISA will be there. When it is appropriate to use it, it will be used,' he said.
Malaysia is holding more than 100 people under the ISA, about 80 of them alleged Islamic militants. Rights groups have long campaigned for them to be freed or brought to trial.
The legislation allows for two-year detention periods that can be renewed indefinitely. The government maintains that detention without trial is needed as a first line of defence against terrorism.
US intelligence consultancy Stratfor, in a bulletin to clients this week, said the Malaysian demonstrations signalled 'instability' ahead of national elections expected early next year.
'The recent demonstrations signal chaos and unpredictability to come before elections are announced, but Badawi's grip on internal security is not going to loosen any time soon,' it said. -- AFP
Read Indian leader in anti-govt rally arrested