Ambiga Sreenevasan got anonymous death threats for her work on the rights of women whose husbands convert to Islam in Muslim-majority Malaysia four years ago. After leading a rally calling for electoral reforms in April, she was accused of treason by a ruling party lawmaker.
The 55-year-old former Malaysian Bar Council president, who received the International Women of Courage Award from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2009, hasn’t stopped challenging the government’s human rights policies.
“They underestimate right-thinking Malaysians,” she said in an interview. “We don’t like bullying.”
While Prime Minister Najib Razak, who must call elections by early 2013, has agreed to some of the demands of Ambiga’s Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, for fairer voting procedures such as the use of indelible ink, his government has declared the civil society group illegal and she has become the focus of personal attacks. Opposition leaders have championed Bersih’s campaign and called the attacks racist.
“She is seen as somebody who’s a professional, has the aspirations of the middle class, believes in things like human rights and good governance,” said James Chin, a professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University outside Kuala Lumpur. “She symbolizes that: Somebody who holds the Malaysian authorities accountable for their actions.”
The mother of two believes her “demonization” has intensified because government supporters want to undermine the credibility of the non-partisan campaign for free and fair elections.
As an Indian, Hindu and woman, “I’m a minority in every sense of the word and I think they thought it would be easy to do,” she said.
In the 2008 elections, Najib’s multiparty, multiethnic National Front coalition had its worst showing in five decades of unbroken rule as urban Malays as well as Chinese and Indian minorities supported opposition parties pledging policies that don’t discriminate in favor of the Malay-Muslim majority.
Harassment of Ambiga since the April demonstration has included traders setting up outside her home and serving free beef burgers and Malay army veterans stretching and shaking their buttocks near her house.
Ruling party lawmaker Mohamad Aziz withdrew his June 26 comment about Ambiga’s possible treason - a crime which carries the death penalty - two days later following complaints from the ruling coalition’s ethnic Indian party leaders.
“Her rather calm and methodical responses to many of the different challenges and the personal attacks,” have given a sense of pride to the Indian Malaysian community, according to Bridget Welsh, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Singapore Management University. “By allowing the people who attacked her to go without prosecution or condemnation -- this has actually had an electoral impact.”
Indians account for about 7 percent of Malaysia’s population of 29 million. Najib’s approval ratings dropped to 69 percent in June from 72 percent in May among the ethnic Indian community, possibly due to dissatisfaction over statements toward Ambiga, according to a Merdeka Center for Opinion Research survey released July 26.
Mohamad Aziz’s comments were personal and didn’t reflect the National Front’s stand, the coalition said June 27. Najib said two days later that statements that hurt the feelings of other races shouldn’t be made.
Besides the use of indelible ink, the next election will allow Malaysians living overseas to vote as part of “unprecedented measures” to strengthen the electoral process, a government spokesman said.
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in an interview that Ambiga led “unreasonable” attacks against the government when she was heading the bar council.
“She seems to have some grudge against the government,” said Mahathir, who resigned in 2003 after 22 years in power. “I think this country has done much better than any other developing country and yet to her it’s wrong, it’s all wrong.”
Ambiga insists she is non-partisan and will not enter politics “so when you say something, it’s not because of politics and not because of which party I belong to, but because it is right, because it’s the law.”
Bersih, which last month won a court order overturning the government’s declaration it is an illegal organization, will continue to push for greater transparency in the voting system, saying the changes announced by the government aren’t substantial enough or haven’t yet been implemented.
After receiving death threats including a detailed one by e-mail on June 30, Ambiga now travels with bodyguards, but she doesn’t believe that Malaysia, which saw racial clashes and the suspension of parliament when the ruling party lost support in 1969 elections, will experience political violence.
“If enough people want change, there’s very little anyone can do to stop it,” she said. “Malaysians are generally peace-loving -- we are nowhere near what was happening in the Middle East, Tunisia and Egypt. We are at the right point in time for positive change, and if we are going to bring change, we only want to do it by clean and fair elections.”
The lawyer intends to step down from Bersih after Malaysia’s next election to focus on her work at her firm specializing in commercial, intellectual property and industrial law. Personal interests like cricket and the arts have also been set aside, she said.
“My claim to fame was sharing the stage with Jit Murad about 37 years ago,” she said, referring to the comedian and actor who co-founded Malaysia’s Instant Cafe Theatre Company.
Ambiga also has some unfinished work from her previous campaign which first brought her death threats: Women’s rights.
Malaysia has a civil court system inherited from its former British colonial rulers as well as separate Islamic courts governing marriage, inheritance and other family matters for Muslims.
“The courts have abdicated their responsibility over a lot of family law issues in these situations involving both the Shariah courts and civil courts,” she said, citing cases where husbands have converted to Islam and unilaterally converted their children too, leaving wives in limbo.
While the government in 2008 proposed legislation requiring individuals wishing to convert to first inform family members and address custody issues, the process stalled at Malaysia’s council of Malay rulers, who have constitutional responsibility for Islamic affairs.
“This should be first in line for resolution,” Ambiga said. “The ordinary Malaysian is beginning to realize that it is not acceptable to play up religion and race in politics. There is a real maturing.”