Will struggle of women human rights defenders lead to a just social order?

Photo courtesy: Maria Chin Abdullah, Malaysia
  • "On 14 September 2016, the Red Movement leader threatened me with the following statement: I will ambush her in the near future… She won’t feel peace even with 10 or 20 bodyguards, we will whip them… She may no longer walk on this earth."
  • “On 17 October 2016 , I received Whatsapp messages threatening to kill me, my three sons, and two other Bersih 2.0 leaders. The message had photoshopped images of Islamic State-type of execution and warned: “you listen carefully.. i am giving last warning to you. do not continue your stupid intention to organize the bersih (5) rally… i will not hesitate to whack you to pieces and also willing to slaughter you ... this warning is from islamic state malaysia…”
  • “I again received another threatening WhatsApp message on 11 November 2016. This time the images showed decapitation of the heads of my three sons, Bersih 2.0 Secretariat Manager Mandeep Singh, former Bersih 2.0 Co-Chair Ambiga Sreenevasan and me.”
  • “When I was released from the SOSMA detention on 28 November 2016, I discovered a bullet had been delivered to my house.”
  • “We lodged police reports on all these incidents, but have yet to receive any information on the progress of these investigations since then."

Photo courtesy:
Maria Chin Abdullah, Malaysia
Well this is just a glimpse of the intimidations to which Maria Chin Abdullah of Malaysia was subjected, which she shared in an exclusive interview given to CNS (Citizen News Service). Maria, from the Women's Development Collective (WDC). She is a human rights activist and an ardent supporter of the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG)- a women’s rights coalition formed in 1986, which has been at the forefront of setting the national agenda for women’s human rights. She is also the Chairperson of Bersih 2.0. Her life reflects the struggles of human rights defenders living under authoritarian regimes.

Maria is also among the key participants at the forthcoming 3rd Asia Pacific Feminist Forum (APFF 2017), to be held in Chiang Mai, Thailand (7-9 September 2017).

Maria joined Bersih 2.0 to link women’s rights, especially women’s political participation, with broader democratic issues. “Bersih 2.0 has played a key role in calling for electoral reform in Malaysia, demanding an end to corruption and asking for institutional reforms that promote democratic governance, gender equality and justice. We have worked closely with the rural and urban communities, including women, as well as called for public demonstrations when the need arose for citizens to voice their concerns”, shared Maria.

She recalls that “In Bersih 5, we held a 7-week convoy culminating in a rally on 19 November 2016. We were attacked by gangsters affiliated to the ruling government’s political party. Expectedly, instead of the perpetrators being arrested, Bersih 2.0 leaders and supporters were harassed by the state.”

One day before the Bersih 5 rally, the police raided Bersih 2.0’s office and detained Maria under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) 2012. During her subsequent 11-day detention without trial, she was kept in solitary confinement in a windowless room with a bright light kept on 24 hours a day. She was interrogated for at least six hours a day, with aggressive police officers making lewd remarks about her family and colleagues. She was subsequently released on Nov 28, 2016.

Despite being harassed, threatened and arrested, Maria has not wavered from her steely resolve to protect human rights. Her struggles have taught her many lessons, which have made her and her movement stronger. From her personal experiences as a human rights defender, Maria feels that it is essential for movements to have a visible people’s representation and support, and to be consistent in their demands.

“We have put in a lot of time and effort to connect with the grassroots, and with the help of other NGOs we have successfully mobilised a people's movement. This was evident during Bersih 5 rally - especially the Bebas Maria vigils as well as the Free Maria walk of 2000 strong women (demanding Maria's release from jail). We also won the support of those who were earlier critical of our rallies. Social media helped in the expansion of our youth support. Our consistency and broader call for institutional reforms for justice and equality attracted people who were concerned with the growing political crisis in the country", she said.

Regional solidarity, social media and international media coverage can help protect human rights defenders from the increasing attacks by the State, feels Maria. The global recognition and growing concern regarding women human rights defenders adds additional pressure to the State and places it in defensive positions, as happened in Malaysia. However, this might not true be for all countries of the Asia pacific region.

“The challenges of harassment and arrests of state and non-state actors will remain as long as people clamour for democracy. But there is no stopping us. We are now at a moment in our history where we are moving into unexplored terrains - sustaining people's movements while ensuring that women's rights issues stay at the top of the national agenda. It is challenging but women have demonstrated the ability to pull through by working together", said Maria.

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections or Bersih (meaning clean in Malay) was formed in Malaysia in 2006 as a political party-driven movement consisting of opposition political leaders and civil society representatives. In 2010 it was re-named Bersih 2.0 as a fully non-partisan electoral reform coalition. Till to date Bersih has organized 5 protest rallies - in 2007, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016 - calling for clean and transparent governance in Malaysia and strengthening the parliamentary democracy system. Of special mention, here are the second rally or Bersih 2.0, also called the Walk for Democracy, organised in 2011- with an estimated 50,000 Malaysians gathering together irrespective of their ethnic origin or religious leanings—and which grew into a worldwide event spanning many countries; and the 2016 Bersih 5 rally-also known by its tagline: Combine our energy: New Malaysia - that called for a new and cleaner electoral system in Malaysia.

31 August 2017
(Shobha Shukla is the Managing Editor at CNS (Citizen News Service) and the above article is based upon her interview series of key women leaders in Asia Pacific region who have played a key role in striving for development justice. Follow her on Twitter @Shobha1Shukla)