Malaysia: eco-activists combat judicial repression

Meena Raman

From Chain Reaction #122, Nov 2014,

Thirty years ago the Malaysian government suppressed environmental and human rights protests using arbitrary detentions and sedition law. Today, we are again faced with the same challenge. The Malaysian government has recently been invoking many of its repressive laws, such as the Sedition Act 1984, against political activists, one notable academic and a journalist.

In 1987 I was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960 − which allows detention without trial. I was held in solitary confinement for 47 days without the right to a lawyer or to be heard in court. No charges were ever filed against me. I still do not know the real reasons for my arrest, but the authorities use the ISA against those they regard as "subversive".

During that time, I was involved in many public interest cases which we brought on behalf of communities. One of them was a case involving a community in Bukit Merah affected by Asian Rare Earth − a company whose majority shareholder was Japanese giant Mitsubishi Chemicals.

The ISA 1960 was repealed on September 15, 2011 but has been replaced by a new law called the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012.

I have also been barred from entering the East Malaysian state of Sarawak because of my involvement in the movement against the Bakun Dam in the 1990s, and a case that was filed on behalf of indigenous communities affected by the Bakun Hydro-electric Dam. This dam caused the relocation of about 10,000 indigenous people from their original settlement sites. They were asked to move to a resettlement site with poor amenities and infrastructure. Even now, in 2014, the complaints from those who live at the resettlement site have not been adequately addressed by the Malaysian government.

Development versus environment and the poor

Wherever environmental crises take place, it is the poor who are the main victims. Farmers, fishermen, plantation and industrial workers, indigenous peoples who live in the forest, and people living near polluting factories are among those who pay the biggest price when 'development' projects cause environmental problems. Not only is their health and safety jeopardized by pollution and environmental contamination, but their very survival is often at stake.

Again and again I have seen natural resources destroyed by chemicals, forests and land taken away because of  'development projects', water resources polluted by industrial waste, indigenous skills rendered useless, and indigenous peoples' livelihoods destroyed.

Such projects usually involve powerful parties who often want nothing more than to remove or silence opposition as quickly and conveniently as possible. Environmental concerns, groups and defenders are increasingly subject to criminalisation, persecution and slander.

However, with growing awareness of environmental issues, communities are increasingly standing up to defend their rights − often using the law to do so, with many key environmental legal cases being filed.

As in the 1980s, Friends of the Earth Malaysia is playing its part in this − helping communities to file legal cases to defend their health and environment in the local courts.

Environmental activism

In the past ten years, two particular cases have raised the level of environmental awareness in Malaysia. The first involves a community in Bukit Koman in Pahang where many people began to suffer various skin, eye and respiratory problems after a gold mining company began operations.

A civil case brought by the community against the Malaysian Department of the Environment (DoE) and the gold mining company, Raub Australian Gold Mining Sdn Bhd (RAGM) requesting a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was met with defeat at all stages from the High Court to the Federal Court (the highest court).

In 2013 RAGM brought defamation suits against three community leaders in reaction to statements made to the press. One of the defamation suits has since been withdrawn, as an apology was tendered in court and no damages or costs had to be paid to the company. The apology was given in the interest of resolving the matter amicably.

In 2012, RAGM also sued two internet news portals, Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today (FMT for publishing allegedly defamatory articles relating to the Bukit Koman issues. RAGM withdrew the defamation suit against FMT after it tendered a full apology in court this year.

The second case relates to the opposition of 1.2 million people to the operations of a rare earths factory in Gebeng, Kuantan, Pahang. The plant, Lynas Advance Materials Plant (LAMP), belongs to the Australian Lynas Corporation Ltd. There is an ongoing campaign on the ground to get Lynas out of Malaysia because the company will be producing radioactive waste and has yet to find a permanent solution to where this waste will be stored.

Both these cases, along with numerous other environment and human rights related issues, have been the subject of many heated debates, media coverage and street demonstrations.

Repressive laws

The Malaysian government has recently been invoking many of its repressive laws, such as the Sedition Act 1984, against political activists, one notable academic and a journalist.

The government has charged a number of environmental activists under the newly enacted Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 for taking part in street demonstrations without giving prior notice to the police. Prior to this, many were also charged under the Police Act 1967, which stipulates that permits are needed for any public gathering.

In August 2013, four people were charged under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 for organising and taking part in a solidarity rally to seek answers from the government for the health problems suffered by the Bukit Koman community. All four have since been discharged by court and no further charges have been brought against them.

In July this year, 15 people were charged in court under the Penal Code for rioting, taking part in an unlawful assembly and obstructing the police following a street demonstration that took place in June for opposing the activities of Lynas Corporation. Natalie Lowrey, a member of the Stop Lynas Coalition ( who was also present during the demonstration, was arrested and kept in detention for six days. She was released without charge after a popular international appeal, and told she was free to leave the country. On August 31, when Natalie attempted to enter Malaysia again, she was deported. Immigration officials informed her that she was on the police blacklist and was unable to enter Malaysia.

These actions show the government's suppression of the constitutional rights to assemble and speak freely without fear or favour.

Corporations are also threatening legal action and have filed legal suits against activists and the media following interviews, statements given and news reports. Millions of Malaysian Ringgits are being asked in damages for these legal suits.

Rights of Citizens

Despite the legal assaults, environmental activism in Malaysia is still strong and environmental defenders are keeping up their spirits.

Friends of the Earth Malaysia has always championed the rights of the marginalised and has advocated for freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, access to information and public participation in decision making processes as well as environmental justice. And we are not about to stop.

For any country to develop in an ecologically and socially just way, it is vital that local communities, especially the poor, are consulted, heard and their interests given priority over the interests of big corporations and other vested interests.

If development does not bring real benefits to the poor and the marginalised, it is mal-development, where the rich benefit over the poor. This cannot be countenanced in any society which is premised on being just and democratic.

From September 22−26, a solidarity mission coordinated by Friends of the Earth International visited Malaysia to express solidarity with affected communities. FoE International believes that for the Malaysian government to contribute to a better future for all its citizens it must support the struggle of environmental rights defenders and protect and respect them, instead of criminalising environmental activism.

In addition, the government must ensure that any corporations responsible for environmental or human rights violations are held accountable for their actions.

Meena Raman is the Friends of the Earth Malaysia Honorary Secretary ( and a member of the Friends of the Earth International executive committee (