Irene Xavier: women are playing a key role

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Irene Xavier is a labour activist from Friends of Women which has been organising women workers since 1978. She’s played a key role organising around health and safety issues in the electronics industry. In 1987 she was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for 355 days. Alison Thorne spoke to Irene about the campaign against the ISA at the Freedom Socialist Party’s May Day Celebrations.

“The ISA was introduced in 1960 and every Prime Minister since has used this Act. Originally it was passed to suppress the Communist Party of Malaya which was engaged in armed struggle against the government. Since the ISA was introduced, it has been used against all types of people.

There is an uncanny similarity between the ISA and the anti-terror laws which have been introduced in Britain, Canada, the USA and now Australia. Very soon after September 11, Mahathir offered all the nations of the world the Internal Security Act. The arguments for your anti-terrorism bill are almost identical to those used to support our Internal Security Act. When the ISA was passed in 1960, we were told it would target terrorists and have no consequences for law-abiding people. They used the same emotional arguments about dangerous people to get it passed. The people being detained in Malaysia today are not terrorists — they are labour activists and members of opposition political parties.

In 1969 the opposition parties together had actually won enough seats to form a fairly strong opposition, and in some of the states they were going to form the government. The ruling élite used the Internal Security Act so that these opposition parties could not take up government. It is a law which can be used in any way, because it is not subject to any kind of review by a court.

I was organising women workers when I was jailed in 1987 under the ISA. The government alleged that I had links to Communist organisations in the Philippines and other countries and that I was part of some big Communist network planning to penetrate organisations in Malaysia. This was the official reason why they detained me. But we all feel the real reason is because the government’s main party, UMNO, had a very serious leadership crisis. The party had a split, and then there was a round of arrests. The aim was to give them time to resolve their own problems. In short, they used the ISA to make sure they remained in power.

The ISA allows for a person to be detained and held by police up to 60 days in an unknown place. They do not allow you any visitors. I was humiliated and I was beaten. Like many others, I was asked to take off my clothes and threatened with rape. There are no rules, no regulations, no checks, no balances. The aim is to force detainees to agree to whatever preposterous story the authorities create.

The ISA has prevailed for so long because any opposition to it has been crushed by it. Also, ISA does not stand alone. It comes with a battery of other laws that control freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association. The government will not allow any trade union or political party they oppose to function. The uses of the ISA are wide, and over the years it has been used to jail thousands of people.

For the first time since the ISA was passed 42 years ago, all the major opposition political parties, together with all the major NGOs, have come together to resist unjust laws. Seventy organisations have united to say that the ISA has to go. These organisations include women’s groups, human rights groups, trade unions and community groups.

Women are playing a very important role in this campaign. There was a big a rally at the end of last year, initiated by women, around the theme of Women Against the ISA.

International solidarity is also crucial, and I call on supporters to do whatever will bring pressure on the Malaysian government. Workers’ solidarity, public statements and demonstrations all help create this political pressure.”

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