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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 14:42 GMT
Video puts Malaysia police in dock
By Jonathan Kent
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Grab from video apparently showing prisoner abuse
The video was apparently filmed on a mobile phone
Some Malaysians are comparing the grainy video of a woman being forced to strip and perform squats by a police officer to the abuses perpetrated by coalition forces in Iraq.

According to Jeff Ooi, one of Malaysia's best-known bloggers, "the video clip draws an eerie parallel to the infamous abuse of human rights in Abu Ghraib - the victims were forced to strip, and the tormentors were women in uniform."

To their credit, Malaysia's leaders did not even draw breath before condemning the video, which came to light on Friday.

"It should not have happened," said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak. "It has dealt a severe blow to our country's image."

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who is also the minister in charge of the police, ordered a full investigation.

One of the most common-place police abuses is to harass women by getting them to undress
Cynthia Gabriel, Suarem

"There should be no cover-up at all," he said. "I don't want anybody to hide the bare facts obtained from the investigations."

The woman being abused in the video appears to be ethnically Chinese, her tormentor a Malay woman police officer wearing a Muslim headscarf. The victim is made to hold her ears as she squats and rises. Ear squats are a punishment common in Malaysian schools and are designed to humiliate.

What makes this doubly uncomfortable for the authorities is that the video emerged after a number of Chinese tourists alleged they had been arrested, forced to strip in front of male police officers and robbed.

One of them, a 35-year-old housewife, filed a complaint. "A policewoman grabbed my breast and slapped me when I blushed," she told The Star newspaper. "I was then forced to take off my undergarments and do five 'ear squats'. I saw a policeman peeping then," she said.

China relations

Stories of Chinese tourists being abused by the Malaysian police have been widely reported in China. They add to a heated debate about the apparent assumption by Malaysian immigration officers that young Chinese women entering the country are intending to work as prostitutes.

Many have been arrested doing so. But the assumption that all young Chinese women tourists are sex workers - an assumption which may have led police to act in this case - has been very damaging

According to Chai Ng, head of the Malaysian Chinese Tourism Association, there were just over 200,000 visitors from China between January and August, down 47.5% on the same period in 2004.

"We're really worried about that," he said. "In China people read about these things on the internet, on TV."

In the past those leaders have condoned these sorts of attitudes as the norm - naturally the rest of the population think it's OK
Elizabeth Wong

So he welcomes the prime minister's decision to send Malaysia's Home Minister Azmi Khalid to China next week. The trip was already planned before the video emerged. The pictures have given his mission to repair relations with Beijing an added urgency.

The government response is also telling in other ways. Though ministers have been careful to remind people that the video may not be genuine, they have not rushed to suggest it is fake.

Even if it were, it still rings true with thousands of Malaysians who have suffered at the hands of the police - anything from routine requests for bribes, to unexplained deaths in custody.

"One of the most common-place police abuses is to harass women by getting them to undress," said Cynthia Gabriel, a director of the Malaysian human rights group Suaram. "This isn't something totally strange or alien that people can't associate with the Malaysian police."

Ugly streak

One of the first things Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi did after coming to power two years ago was to announce a top level independent inquiry into the police. This incident may give added impetus to his efforts to reform the force.

But while most Malaysians will feel that the police are not the professional service this country deserves, the police are far better than one might expect given their rates of pay - only around a quarter to a third of comparable private sector salaries.

Mr Abdullah might need to consider a streamlined but better paid, better disciplined police service if he is to prevent a repeat of this sort of incident.

But there is also a deeper problem.

Malaysia is a vibrant multicultural society - just over half the population are Malays, a quarter are ethnic Chinese, just under a tenth are of Indian origin and there are many smaller groups.

But at the same time there is also a wide and ugly streak of racism and xenophobia running through it. When a government MP used the profoundly offensive racial epithet Keling to describe Malaysian Indians in parliament recently he was not even publicly reprimanded by his leader, let alone sacked.

Blaming everything on foreigners - whether they be Indonesian migrant workers or Western business people - is common. And stories of foreign workers being exploited or abused are common.

"It comes from some of our politicians," according to social activist Elizabeth Wong. "In the past those leaders have condoned these sorts of attitudes as the norm - naturally the rest of the population think it's OK. It'll take quite an effort to reverse the phenomenon."

Prime Minister Abdullah has staked his premiership on making Malaysia a more honest, more decent place. This video is but one of many things that suggest his is no easy task.

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