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Undocumented migrants are detained during a crackdown by Malaysia’s Immigration Department in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, May 20, 2020. © 2020 Mohd Firdaus/NurPhoto via AP

(Bangkok) – The Malaysian coalition that took power in March 2020 halted the Pakatan Harapan government’s faltering human rights reform movement, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021.  
The first nine months of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government featured an aggressive crackdown on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, attacks on the media, and discrimination against migrants and refugees. There was also a wholesale retreat from genuine police accountability for abuses.  
“Malaysia has undergone an incredible reversal of human rights in 2020 – all for the worst,” said Phil Robertson deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Hopes for human rights reforms have never risen so fast in Malaysia nor collapsed so quickly.”  
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. 
The decline in media freedom has been particularly striking, Human Rights Watch said. In July, after Al Jazeera aired a documentary about Malaysia’s treatment of migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, the police announced that they were investigating Al Jazeera for sedition, defamation, and violation of the Communications and Multimedia Act.  
Police questioned six Al Jazeera staff members and raided the organization’s offices in Kuala Lumpur. In August, Malaysia refused to renew the visas of two Al Jazeera journalists based in the country. The government has also been seeking to hold online news portals responsible for comments posted by readers. 
Malaysia’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19 had a disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. Migrants and refugees who lost their jobs due to the pandemic were excluded from government aid programs, and many were left unable to feed their families. The authorities used the pandemic to justify pushing boatloads of desperate Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar back out to sea. The authorities also rounded up thousands of undocumented migrants and detained them in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention centers to await deportation. 
Abuse by the police remains a serious problem in Malaysia, as does a lack of accountability for such abuses. In August, the government withdrew a bill submitted by the prior administration to create an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission “because the police objected to it.” The government instead introduced a bill that would gut the principle of accountability for the police by creating an Independent Police Conduct Commission that lacks both key investigative powers and the authority to punish wrongdoing.  
“Prime Minister Muhyiddin seems intent on dragging Malaysia back to the bad old days of the Najib government, when simply speaking out publicly about sensitive topics would have the police soon knocking at your door,” Robertson said. “The government should stop backsliding and fully respect the rights of all within its borders.”

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