Malaysia’s Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, Bersih 2.0, is an electoral reform movement that has held a series of rallies since its inception in 2006. The latest, Yellow Mania, was held January 6 through 10 and took an approach that differed from the usual protests in the street.
Bersih Secretariat Manager Mandeep Singh described Yellow Mania as “relaxing and fun-filled”: “This event is to appreciate the Bersih 4 rally goers and all other supporters, who may have not attended for their own reasons. It is meant to be an educational eye-opener and a leisurely experience at the same time. It is also to appeal to those with interest in creative activism.”
The five-day event had something for everyone: photography, panel discussions, stand-up comedy, films, coloring for children and an activist-in-training bootcamp for young adults. What it almost didn’t have, however, was guest speaker and Indonesian human rights activist Mugiyanto Sipin.
Sipin, an activist with the International NGO Forum on Indonesian Development (INFID), was detained at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and deported back to Indonesia, on grounds of “political interference by a foreigner.” Regardless, modern technology allowed the show to go on: Sipin returned to Indonesia and participated in Yellow Mania via Skype, a Microsoft video calling service.
Such is the wonder that is today’s technology. Governments are able to control the physical presence of individuals, but digital presences have become a bit harder to contain. It would be naïve, however, to think that our unsecured digital presences do not follow us into the tangible world. In fact, a tweet posted about Sipin attending Yellow Mania is what led the Malaysian authorities to intercept him at the airport. Furthermore, Skype, the platform that ultimately brought Sipin to Yellow Mania, is well-known for its security vulnerabilities and tendency to share users’ conversations with governments’ prying eyes. (Communications are encrypted when in transit, but not from Skype itself.)
In a country like Malaysia, exposed communications and security vulnerabilities of all sorts become all the more worrisome. Malaysia’s 1948 Sedition Act was largely a forgotten holdover from colonial days until recent years. Since 2013, the legislation has been used repeatedly to punish dissent, a trend that has only strengthened since reports of embezzlement associated with Prime Minister Najib Razak surfaced in mid-2015. In October 2015, an attempt to challenge the constitutionality of the legislation was rejected by a federal court, meaning that to this day, to speak out against the government, its policies, royalty or Islam is to risk fines, imprisonment or even banishment from “any electronic device” altogether.
Amnesty International has argued that Mugiyanto’s deportation is part of a growing trend in Malaysia to violate the internationally guaranteed rights of freedom of expression, freedom to receive information and freedom to impart information. In response, the human rights organization has called on Malaysia to “respect and protect the right to freedom of expression.” In the meantime, SumRando Cybersecurity urges Malaysians to enact some “creative activism” and secure what they say and do online.
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