Islamists among Malaysia's Malay-Muslim majority
are set to celebrate what most people would consider a setback to human rights at a rally scheduled for Dec. 8. The new reform-minded government was forced to shut down plans to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
(ICERD) after hard-line Malay Muslim groups threatened to run amok in the Southeast Asian country. The climb down by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's
Pakatan Harapan alliance government over the weekend came after hard-line Malay politicians and their support groups warned they would not tolerate any change to their "special" status. The government said it was forced to withdraw the pledge after tensions escalated with groups of Malay Muslim protesters, marching with banners around the country on Nov. 23 decrying the ideals of ICERD, calling it an attack on Muslims and the status of Islam, the country's official religion. Racial and religious tensions had been simmering for over a month, stirred by hard-line Malay politicians who urged the Malay-Muslims to protest the plan announced by Mahathir in a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in September.
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The Prime Minister's Office issued a terse statement on Nov. 23 announcing that it would not go ahead with ratifying the anti-racism convention. "The government will continue to defend the federal constitution, which contains the social contract that has been agreed upon by representatives from all races during the formation of this country," the statement read. Malaysia is among just 14 countries including Myanmar, North Korea, and South Sudan that have yet to sign the ICERD. Government leaders said the decision was made as the focus on their status as "bumiputras" (a catchall term to describe the indigenous people of Malaysia, it literally means "princes of the land") by some in the Malay Muslim community was threatening to boil over. Lim Kit Siang
, a Pakatan Harapan MP, admitted the government's aim to build a "New Malaysia" has suffered a setback with its reversal on the pledge. Referring to the bloody racial riots of 1969, he said: "No Malaysians would want Malaysia to ratify the ICERD at the price of another racial riot in the country," he wrote in his blog. "There is no doubt that there are irresponsible elements which are seeking to incite and escalate racial and religious distrust, animosity and hatred to engender the conditions to replicate another May 13 in Malaysia," he said. Local civil society organizations blamed the inexperience of the government in dealing with the issue and allowing hotheads to hijack its plan to showcase an egalitarian, multi-ethnic Muslim-majority Malaysia. A joint statement by 18 NGOs said that, "the announcement by the Prime Minister's Office to not ratify the ICERD is a step backwards for the new Malaysia." "After promising the people and international audiences at the United Nations General Assembly and the recent Universal Periodic Review to create a Malaysia that is inclusive, moderate and respected globally, the Pakatan Harapan government has fallen to the call of ICERD dissidents," the groups said. Prominent lawyer N Surendran, an adviser to the human rights group Lawyers for Liberty said the government had only gratified critics by giving up on ratifying the U.N. accord, and that its leaders had failed to show strong moral leadership. "The claim that Article 153 of the federal constitution would need to be amended if ICERD is ratified has no legal basis whatsoever; and this has been pointed out repeatedly," he said in a statement. "Neither does the ICERD affect Islam: all Muslim countries have already ratified the ICERD, except Malaysia and Brunei," he wrote. "There is simply no acceptable reason not to ratify ICERD." United in opposition to the government's reform plans are the United Malay National Organisation (UNMO), the Islamist political party PAS, and a host of Malay-Muslim civil society organizations. They claim ratifying the U.N. accord was about weakening the special rights of the Malay majority. Having won that battle, they are now planning a thanksgiving rally on Dec. 8 in Kuala Lumpur city center. PAS has ordered its members to attend. The government is wary the planned rally to celebrate racial discrimination in the country will be seen as offensive by other Malaysians. Also at risk now is the pledge to sign five other U.N. human rights accords it has yet to ratify. Malaysia has promised to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families; and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin warned that the authorities would act against those who used the Dec. 8 rally to try and trigger racial and religious tensions. He said that, "while the government celebrates the rights of individuals to speak and assemble as guaranteed by the federal constitution, these rights should be practiced in accordance with the law." Former deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi, now UMNO president, is among those under investigation for fanning racial and religious tensions. The country's race-based affirmative action policies favor ethnic-majority "bumiputra" over minority Chinese and Indians, who make up 69 percent, 24 percent and 7percent of the 32-million population, respectively.