Najib stirs unease with plan to expand citizen 'police'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2009, 12:00am

Plans by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to deploy a controversial volunteer civilian corps to curb escalating crime are ringing alarm bells with human rights activists and opposition lawmakers.

They say deploying armed, untrained Rela members, who number about 700,000, to fight crime could lead to 'massive' rights violations.

'Rela is not an enforcement agency like the police. It is a voluntary body and completely unsuitable to enforce the law and battle crime on the streets,' said Irene Fernandez, the executive director of Tenaganita, an NGO that champions migrant workers.

'Human rights violations and assaults and robberies against foreign migrant workers all shot up when Rela was deployed against them in 2007.

'They are ordinary people like office workers and the power goes to their heads. They became a vigilante corps. Using Rela for policing is unsafe and a danger to the Malaysian public.'

Rela is the Malay acronym for the Volunteers of Malaysian People, originally created to provide village security. Mr Najib said on Monday that Rela would be 'upgraded and trained' to tackle crime.

He also said 600 surveillance cameras would be installed in the capital and police equipment upgraded to fight crime. But it is the readiness to use Rela that is hotly disputed.

Home Ministry officials yesterday were unclear what kind of training Rela members would get before deployment on the streets.

'Our plan is for Rela to assist police, not replace the police,' an official said. 'The areas of co-operation and the procedures and methods involved are being worked out.'

He dismissed widespread earlier criticism of Rela as an 'unruly' vigilante-type body abusing and mistreating migrant workers.

Rela volunteers, mostly office workers and civil servants, originally helped police manage crowds at big sports and religious events. In 2007, the government amended the law and gave Rela members powers to stop, search and arrest civilians. Rela officers were also issued with guns during anti-migrant operations.

Rela was used to seek out and arrest illegal migrant workers, and members were paid M$80 (HK$177) for each person arrested.

'Overnight, cases of mistreatment, assault and robbery shot up,' said Enalini Elumalai, a senior officer with rights group Suaram.

In 2007, Rela was in the spotlight for arresting and roughing up the wife of an Indonesian diplomat.

Others who alleged abuse included foreign students, Chinese nationals arrested on suspicion of being prostitutes, and Indian information-technology expatriates mistaken for illegal immigrants. 'It was blatant racial profiling,' Ms Fernandez said.

The government then decreed that police officers had to accompany Rela members during operations.

The authorities see Rela as a cheap alternative to the 96,000-member police force.

In May, the government released statistics showing a steady increase of all types of crime, especially robbery.

A Home Ministry poll found 95 per cent of 9,000 respondents felt unsafe and 90 per cent blamed police for not doing enough.

A parliamentary conference on crime yesterday said the situation had reached 'intolerable levels', and lawmakers demanded the immediate resignation of the inspector general of police, Musa Hassan.

Lim Kit Siang, an opposition lawmaker who convened the conference, said: 'Using the untrained and unqualified Rela for policing is a dangerous step backwards.'