The importance of Timor Leste’s 2017 elections

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Source: Facebook.

Timor-Leste’s 15 years of independence have been marked by a mixed performance of progress and crisis. Having emerged from war and internal conflict in the late 1990s, Timor-Leste has a challenging path to get on par with other countries, in particular on issues related to development.

After 15 years of independence, it is time to take stock of how far things have come. The country’s presidential election will be held on March 20, with a potential second round of voting in April before the parliamentary election in July, the first such election to be held since the United Nations (UN) Mission departed in 2012.

Eight candidates, including one female candidate, will be contesting the March 20 presidential elections after fulfilling the criteria, including securing enough supporters. The eight candidates are Amorim Vieira, Angela Freitas, Antonio da Conceição, Antonio Maher, Francisco Guterres Lu-Olo, Jose Luis Guterres, Luis Alves Tilman, and Jose Antonio Neves. All eight candidates are scheduled to carry out their political campaigns from March 3-17. Voting is scheduled to take place simultaneously on March 20 both inside the country and overseas for Timorese abroad.

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Manufactured fear

It was a sombre September 16 as I spent my time following the Himpunan Rakyat Bersatu or “red shirt” rally via online news portals and the sharing of photos and videos on social media. There was one specific video that struck me, a lady in her very angry tone saying, “Enough is enough. Babi is babi!” Some said I should not be too shocked with the racist hate speeches and all the hatred messages. Well, I am all for the right to peaceful assembly, but racist hate speech has absolutely no place in our society. Some sincerely believe that skin color no longer matters. But there are also some believing the other extreme, that racism is at the root of nearly every problem.

Is racism really alive in this country? I am not sure if I should understand the September 16 event as a sign that frustration has reached its peak and was boiling over, because the boiling point could also be “manufactured”. It could simply be our perception. Having said that, I am going to discuss the “Bersih 4 vs ‘red shirt’” issue from a social movement perspective.

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A year of dissent and repression

It is that time of the year again. Ask any Malaysian on their reflections in 2015, you would probably get some similar answers. They would possibly tell you that life is getting tougher with everything becoming unaffordable. Some would probably tell you about the mess that our country is getting into, politically.

I was in a shop yesterday, and overheard the worker telling a customer that the price of goods could cost more next year. The customer sarcastically replied, “We must thank Najib for that.” Price hikes undoubtedly affect everything we use in daily life. With trust deficit in our leadership, Malaysians are frustrated by an unaccountable government, demands were dismissed, while dissenters were slammed under various laws. Look at the various draconian laws that the government has introduced and amended, for instance, Prevention of Terrorism Act, Sedition Act and the latest, National Security Council Bill. These laws share one common characteristic: repression on our fundamental liberties.

I was in Jakarta last week for a conference. Most of the international participants that I met asked me the same question: what is going on in Malaysia? It is like the hardest logic puzzles ever created and from time to time, the puzzle seems to get more challenging with some missing pieces. Now, it seems to reach a stage where it is just difficult to comprehend. The controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement left us in limbo, as there are still many vague areas to be explained.

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Putrajaya suffers from human rights allergy

It is that time of the year again, when various human rights annual reports are launched all over the world. Malaysia, too, will be scrutinised on its human rights report cards. Last week, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) launched its annual report 2014. The report highlighted Putrajaya’s inconsistency in dealing with the rise of racial and religious hate speech and with dissenting opinions. Similarly in the just-released 2014 human rights report by the US State Department, it has underscored Putrajaya’s restrictions on freedom of speech and expression as among the worrying trends in the country.

Suaram recorded a total of 14 cases of deaths in police custody in 2014 alone. Up to June this year, it recorded nine such cases. Looking at the numbers, one can only predict there does not appear to be any sign of decreasing. Last Friday, the Faculty of Law in the University of Malaya (UM) hosted a human rights event. A joint campaign for Malaysia’s accession to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) by the Human Rights Council of Malaysia (Suhakam), Amnesty International Malaysia (AIM), Bar Council Malaysia, Suaram and Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) was launched. What is laudable is that, for the very first time, various stakeholders from diverse backgrounds partnered up under this collective effort for a common goal.

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Suppressing dissenters stifles democracy

Dissent is one of the central elements of democracy. But when such dissenting voices start to make the leaders feel threatened, they normally opt for an offensive approach – that is, by labelling a person a traitor. But, we have to recognise that constructive criticism against one’s government is not sedition, rather, according to the American founding father, Thomas Jefferson, dissent is the highest form of patriotism. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) faces continuous calls for political and legislative reforms, particularly since the 2008 general election, where they lost the two-thirds majority in Parliament. These pressures come from not only the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), but also from the civil society that has been expanding ever since. Since then, more warnings have become visible of the leadership’s anxiety about these appeals for greater freedom and democracy in the country.

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We unite, therefore we protest

Lawyers don’t march every day. But if they march, then something must be very wrong. That was what the then-chairman of the Bar Council Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said during the “Walk for Justice” by the lawyers in 2007. What Ambiga said was right. Unfortunately after seven years, lawyers once again have no option but to march again. Why are people prepared to protest or march for a cause? It is a question that has intrigued not only the academic community but also the general public. The heart of every protest originates from grievances. It could be feelings of injustice, inequality or relative deprivation. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly”. Certainly this time around, amidst the “crazy” numbers of arrests made under the Sedition Act in this year alone, would you not want to protest?

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Protesters are not criminals

May Day last Friday witnessed thousands of Malaysians taking to the streets to demand that the goods and services tax (GST) be abolished. More than two dozen protesters, including activists and opposition politicians, were arrested. Similar to the March 7 #KitaLawan rally, the arrests only started after the rally. Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, former Bersih 2.0 co-chair and former president of Malaysian Bar, was among those arrested. Also arrested were Seremban member of parliament (MP) Anthony Loke, Kuala Krai MP Dr Hatta Ramli, Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli, Batu MP Tian Chua, Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad, Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) secretary-general S. Arutchelvan and activist Hishamuddin Rais. Tian Chua was arrested after speaking at a Permatang Pauh by-election ceramah and reportedly treated roughly by the police.

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