US President Barack Obama should use his historic visit to Malaysia this weekend to speak directly to concerns about the country’s deteriorating human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Thursday.
Obama arrives in the Muslim-majority country on Saturday for a two-night stay; the first visit by a serving US president since 1966.
According to local reports, he is scheduled to meet representatives of a range of civil-society groups including representatives of ‘Bersih’ (clean), an election reform movement whose supporters have clashed with authorities in huge recent protests.
In a letter sent to Obama last month, Human Rights Watch urged the president to raise human rights issues during his visit to Kuala Lumpur, and to meet with members of human rights groups, civil society organizations, opposition political party figures, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
‘Malaysia’s claims of being a tolerant and rights-respecting democracy don’t stand up to scrutiny,’ said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director. ‘President Obama needs to take up concerns that basic rights are under threat, and that civil society is squeezed between restrictive laws and abusive government implementation.’
The statement noted that LGBT people ‘face particular persecution’, with officials banning group events or using offensive and false allegations to undermine their activities.
In 2013, extremist religious groups filed complaints with the police against an LGBT event, deeming it a ‘deviant sex festival,’ forcing the organizers to cancel it.
The police in 2011 banned Seksualiti Merdeka, an LGBT gathering and arts festival.
Government religious officials and police also frequently arrest transgender women under state-level Sharia (Islamic law) provisions prohibiting cross-dressing, and there are credible reports of abuses occurring during the raids and while the women are in police custody.
‘President Obama should highlight that LGBT people are entitled to the same rights as everyone else,’ Sifton said. ‘Speaking out on anti-gay persecution in Kuala Lumpur could have a long-lasting impact in Malaysia, both in demonstrating international support for this community under threat, and in setting the tone for a more civil public debate in the country.’
Pang Khee Teik, a prominent LGBT activist and co-organizer of the banned Seksualiti Merdeka festival told Gay Star News that while calling out Malaysia’s human rights abuses would draw the world’s attention to them, it bugs him that ‘increasingly LGBTs have become pawns in the ideological battles of the powerful.’
At a recent meeting set up by the US Embassy with local LGBT activists ahead of Obama’s visit, Pang said he told the group that he ‘saw no need for Obama to support our freedom as if the USA is the icon of freedom.’
‘East and West, North and South, we are all struggling together and learning from one another. But some of us get to determine who is developed and who isn’t.
‘What I would have liked is for USA to admit to its past discriminatory policies and bad laws targeted at LGBTs, and how some are still being enacted as we speak, for example, some states have signed into law the right of people to refuse services to LGBTs based on religious convictions.’
Pang told GSN he hopes for Obama to acknowledge the work of Malaysian citizen movements and civil societies in promoting inclusivity by championing a broad range of rights including migrant and refugee rights, women’s rights, ethnic and religious minorities rights, right to political dissent and assembly, as well as sexual orientation and gender identity and expression rights.
‘Say that you are inspired by the sight of Malaysian citizens coming together to enact their full citizenship by regarding each other as citizens first. Say that leaders around the world could learn from how citizens everywhere are starting to organise, include, listen to, and support one another, not as leaders to followers, but as equals to equals,’ Pang told GSN what he hopes for President Obama to tell the public when he’s in Malaysia.