Sunday, November 17, 2013

'Umno-linked gangs preserve authoritarian state'

Recent research in Malaysia has shown that gangs, created by certain NGOs, are linked to the ruling party to preserve an authoritarian state.

To put it simply, said French researcher, Sophie Lemiere, "Gangs are connivance (complicit) militants. They are systematic political actors that play a role in the construction and sustainability of the authoritarian state."

Sophie Lemiere Pekida forumLemiere, who has just received her PhD from Sciences-Po (L'Institut d'études politiques) Paris on the subject of ethno-nationalist and Islamic movements in Malaysia, was in Penang to present her research to students from Universiti Sains Malaysia's humanities school yesterday.

Her paper focussed on gangs involved in what is called 'connivance (or complicit) militancy', where those studied in her research are Pekida and its assimilated or satellites groups.

Her research was conducted throughout Peninsular Malaysia from 2008 to April this year.

Her aim was to provide a snapshot of the behaviour of gangs between two general elections (March 2008 and May 2013) and how their allegiances and roles have adapted to the political climate and opportunities presented.

Lemiere explained that gangs in the context of Malaysia are "secret political arrangement by which political actors or political parties subcontract legal or illegal actions to serve its interest".

This range from advocacy, demonstrations and violence directed at groups or individuals, she added.

"The gangs are entrepreneurs of mobilisation and violence and offer services in exchange for money or advantages and thus become political actors," she said.

"Muscle and numbers are needed by political parties - when challenged by opponents - in action, campaign, demonstrations, and controversies," she added.

'Patron and godfather'

In her one-hour talk, Lemiere shared her research about gangs creating so-called NGOs to support political parties, especially Umno.

But this does not mean that all gangs support Umno, she pointed out, as some gangs have turned to support the opposition for other reasons.

The gang members Lemiere talked to often told her that former premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was their "patron and godfather".

"But Abdullah may not know that the NGO Pekida have gang activities. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt or they may be using his name," she said.

In the political upheaval of the 2008 election, with the departure of Abdullah from politics, one would imagine Pekida and those involved in gangs, would have disappeared, as they were also facing internal leadership crisis.

But instead, all those gangs changed strategy to become stronger, said Lemiere.

The institutionalisation of gangs by NGOs, has been initiated by the opportunity that arose in the post-Mahathir era, where there was a new space for NGOs and civil society.

"In the face of this democratisation, the ruling party has to face growing discontent, relayed in the alternative media, and a stronger opposition," said Lemiere.

"This is where some leaders have had the need for connivance militant, in order to show more support," she added.

The system of exemption

Lemiere said religious and political controversies provide an opportunity for gangs to participate publicly in debate and for them to show support for the ruling party.

She added that these are situations where groups unleash their potential for violence, mostly remained unpunished, and in some cases, supported by government leaders as in the case of the cow head controversy in Shah Alam in 2009.

She added that there is a system of exemption (from punishment) practised by the state which allows the proliferation of gang activities that may cross the line between legal and illegal.

This strategy remains almost unquestioned, because it is barely visible, like during rallies, where gang members infiltrate the crowd to provoke violence, she said.

This strategy was also used during election campaigns, the cow head and 'Allah' controvery, where there were attacks on churches and mosques, she added.

"Gang members benefit from the system of exemption, which is why they are mostly not arrested. If they are, then you don't hear much of the trial,' she said.

Lemiere claimed that violence perpetrated by these gangs is orchestrated as they want to ensure maximum media exposure so that those incidents may be used in debate or discourse to justify a set of very strong laws.

"The state run by Umno today has grounded its governance in a political culture based on the threat of the breach of social peace, for example, events in the May 1969 racial riots, which lead to political discourses on the escalation of ethnic tension," she said.

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