‘Where are they?’: Malaysia’s disappearing religious activists
At least four religious leaders have gone missing in recent months, sparking fears that minorities are being targeted in a trend toward Islamization
On February 13, the day he disappeared, Raymond Koh Keng Joo was driving near his home in Petaling Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. The 62-year-old Christian pastor was known for his charitable work with marginalized groups: single mothers, drug addicts, sex workers and people suffering from HIV/Aids.
Koh’s work had also previously attracted the attention of Malaysia’s religious authorities. His Damansara Utama Methodist Church was raided in 2011 by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department, the state branch of the national religious authority.
Koh was suspected of converting Muslims to Christianity, an offense punishable in Selangor, Malaysia’s most populous state, with a fine of up to 10,000 ringgit (US$2,300), a one-year prison sentence, or both. No charges were filed against Koh. He later received an anonymously sent bullet in the mail.
Koh’s kidnapping was captured on CCTV footage from a nearby housing estate. The widely circulated clip shows three black SUVs following Koh, who was driving a white sedan, as he pulls off the highway. In the footage, half a dozen men exit the SUVs, pull Koh from his car, and bundle him into another vehicle before fleeing the scene, leaving behind only broken glass and Koh’s license plate.
The entire incident took a mere 47 seconds.
Koh’s abduction, brazenly carried out in broad daylight, followed similar disappearances of minority religious leaders in previous months, a gathering trend that has sparked fears that religious minorities are bring targeted amid a wider clampdown on public dissent and trend toward Islamization in Malaysian society.
Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth were declared missing on November 30. Six days earlier, social activist Amri Che Mat, 43, was reported missing by his wife. Two eyewitnesses reportedly saw Amri accosted less than a kilometer from his home by a group of armed men in two SUVs and three sedans. Amri’s truck was found 21 kilometers away, the windows shattered and license plates removed.
Parallels between Koh’s and Amri’s abductions, as well as the apparent expertise of the kidnappers, has led many in Malaysia to surmise that the incidents are related and were carried out by professionals, perhaps even state-sponsored or aligned agents.
A statement by the Malaysian Bar Council on April 11 said that the abductions led to “public perception and speculation of the occurrence of forced disappearances.” Amnesty International defines “forced disappearances” as abductions carried out by state-aligned actors “as a strategy to spread terror within society.”
The perfunctory search efforts by the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), which has labeled the Hilmy and Amri cases as missing person incidents, has further fueled speculation of foul play among human rights defenders and sections of the media.
The RMP hasn’t taken lightly the accusations of collusion. At a press conference on March 20, Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, the nation’s top law enforcement figure, told reporters to “shut your bloody mouth,” and blamed the media’s attentiveness to the case for scaring away investigation leads.
Ambiga Sreenevasan, president of HAKAM, Malaysia’s National Human Rights Society, said the government’s “deafening silence” has reinforced the message that even if the abductions were not state-sanctioned, they are being tolerated by the state.
“[The kidnappers] have succeeded in creating fear, if that was the intent,” Sreenevasan said. “It has turned Malaysia into something that it never was, which is a country where we have forced disappearances.”
The Home Ministry and RMP did not respond to Asia Times’ requests for comment. A reward of 10,000 ringgit (US$22,500) offered by Koh’s family for information has so far yielded no leads. But grassroots demonstrations and vigils have sprung up in parishes across the country, including in Muslim-minority east Malaysia.
An April 7 statement from 46 nongovernmental organizations and faith groups called on the RMP to “demonstrate that they are working vigorously to locate the abductees and bring the abductors to justice” as well as provide assurances that “no state agencies conducted the abductions.” The following night, 300 attended a candlelight vigil under a “Di Mana Mereka (“Where Are They?”) banner in Kuala Lumpur.
Peter Chong, a political activist and former Petaling Jaya municipal counselor, was among those looking for answers. His probing interest made him a target. In late March, Chong posted on his personal Facebook page about an encounter with a motorcyclist, who warned him to “take care” because people were going missing, and those responsible knew where their “targets” lived.
On April 7, Chong, 54, traveled to Thailand to follow-up what he believed to be a tip about Pastor Koh’s whereabouts. Instead, Chong says, he was kidnapped by three men, two of them Malaysian nationals, and held for eight days in the southern Thai city of Hat Yai.
Chong said his captors pressured him to stop looking for Koh. “I believe [their] objective was intimidation for non-Muslims not to interfere with Muslim issues,” Chong told Asia Times after his return to Malaysia.
Chong was released without incident on April 16, which he attributed to his captors’ satisfaction with the wall-to-wall coverage the case received in the Malaysian press. He said that his captors warned him that non-Muslim activists should stay away from “Islamic issues.” “[Because] I [have] not done that, I still do not feel too safe,” he said.
The abductions, all involving people of minority faiths, come against a backdrop of rising Islamization of Malaysian law and politics. Activists and lawyers describe an escalating “creep” of Islamic principles into civic law, as emboldened hardliners push for ever-more invasive regulations.
The government “increasingly impose[s] restrictive views and norms upon ethnic and religious minorities that not only impact these groups’ ability to practice their religion freely, but also constrain their everyday lives,” says the 2017 United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report, released on April 26.
The 2015 Pew Research Center Government Restrictions on Religion survey rated Malaysia “very high” in government restrictions on religious freedom; only Russia, Iran, China, and Egypt scored worse.
Malaysia’s constitution states that “other religious may be practiced in peace and harmony”, but enshrines Sunni Islam as “the religion of the Federation.” No other religious orders may practice evangelism, and followers of minority faiths are frequently subject to open hostility, accusations of being “un-Islamic” and violence.
As with Koh, the Hilmys had previously been accused of proselytizing. Amri’s local charity group, Perlis Hope, was smeared on social media for promoting the Shia doctrine, charges his wife has repeatedly denied. In 2014, Amri’s home was raided by the local Islamic authority in Perlis, northern Malaysia.
Malaysia’s estimated 40,000-strong minority Shiite community faces regular harassment and intimidation. Shia’s, like all non-Sunni Muslims, are considered “deviants” under a 1996 National Fatwa Council ruling, and are banned from publishing and distributing religious texts in Malaysia.
To enforce its version of Sunni Islam, Malaysia operates a constellation of state-level Shariah courts independent from the civil judicial system. Non-Muslims, who make up 38% of Malaysia’s population, aren’t subject to Shariah courts, but “jurisdictional conflicts” are frequent, according to the 2015 Malaysia Human Rights Report, issued annually by the local rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM).
Overlapping legal orders, which include federal and state laws, sultan-issued decrees, and religious council fatwas, are often interpreted as equally binding, “erod[ing] the notion of a secular state and the constitution as the supreme law of Malaysia,” the 2017 USCIRF report said.
Competing legal codes lead to contradictory readings in cases deemed to overlap with religion, particularly those involving conversion, marriage and divorce.
In 2015, the president of the conservative Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) introduced a bill to expand the jurisdiction of Shariah courts and raise maximum penalties to 30 years in prison, 100,000 ringgit and 100 lashes.
Supporters claim that the “hudud bill”, as it is known, only sought to raise the punishment ceiling, not to fully implement the Islamic penal code. But critics argue that by not assigning penalties to specific violations the bill enables flexible implementation that could impact the lives of non-Muslims.
In the PAS-ruled state of Kelantan, for example, all businesses are required to close at Muslim prayer times. Attempting apostasy, or converting out of Islam, is grounds for detention for up to 36 months in the state of Sabah; in more conservative Kelantan and Terengganu, the sentence is death.
While the latter is hypothetical, far exceeding the Shariah maximum penalty of three years imprisonment, critics fear passage of the “hudud” bill could also weaken the standing of civil courts in future cases.
The bill “polarizes the country into Muslims and non-Muslims,” said political analyst-turned Democratic Action Party parliamentarian Ong Kian-Ming. “Our friends in opposition coalition are worried about voting against the bill, because they will be branded as being anti-Islam.”
Prime Minister Najib Razak initially broke ranks with his ruling Barisian Nasional coalition to support the bill before recanting in the face of a mounting backlash. Debate on the bill has been postponed until the next parliamentary session in August.
While new laws are being proposed that will restrict religious freedoms and practices, Malaysia’s legal code already ascribes extraordinary powers to law enforcement in ways that rights groups say threaten civil liberties.
Prosecutions for “insulting Islam” under the Sedition Act (1948) often serve as a pretext to silence political opponents, while dozens of activists and human rights defenders have been arrested in recent years under a suite of repressive statutes, including the Communications and Multimedia Act (1998) and the Printing Presses and Publications Act (1984), which censor online speech and minority religious texts.
The RMP, the country’s only law enforcement agency, also wields extraordinary license to detain suspects under investigation with only “illusory” oversight, “cloaking draconian powers in a veneer of legality,” according to human rights attorney Andrew Khoo.
Officers are rarely disciplined and there is little accountability for overreach or abuse. SUARAM’s 2016 report recorded 723 deaths in police custody between 2013 and October 2016. The 2015 edition notes: “The use of torture has permeated the criminal justice system in Malaysia.”
The silencing of opposition activists, religious minorities and human rights defenders has “creat[ed] an environment for impunity” that “[gives] comfort to non-state actors willing to take advantage of the situation,” said lawyer Khoo.
“Sometimes for civil society activists in this country, it may be difficult to convey that we are a society under siege,” he said, citing Malaysia’s peaceful domestic affairs, ethnic plurality and vibrant commercial life.
Khoo added that the recent abductions have had a chilling effect on civil society. “News of these kinds of disappearances and lack of progress made in solving them adds to a climate of fear and intimidation we live under,” he said.
Malaysia’s state-steered National Human Rights Commission announced on April 21 its own independent investigation into the abductions, while appealing to the RMP to “use all means at their disposal to elucidate the fate of these missing persons.”
On May 5, a coalition of civil society groups announced the formation of the Citizen Action Group on Enforced Disappearances to coordinate lobbying and advocacy of local and foreign governments, assist missing activists’ families, and plan nationwide vigils.
But Sreenevasan stressed that the abductions, carried out with impunity and met with disinterest by the authorities have already rattled Malaysians’ confidence in their country’s institutions.
“Once you push the envelope and you work outside the law, that’s it. It’s a slippery slope. It can happen to anyone, for any reason,” she said. “Then who is safe?”