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new internationalist
issue 179 - January 1988



Skimming the cream
Clampdown in Malaysia

MEENAKSHI RAMAN is one of the leading human rights law- yers In the country. Through the Consumers Association of Penang and Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth Malaysia) she has taken court action to help tenants, farmers, tribal communities and those affected by pollution.

AROKIA DASS was for many years the Secretary General of the Transport EquIpment Union, one of the largest and best organized unions in the country. He is also active In Sahabat Alam Malaysia, help- ing work people affected by occupational and health problems.

The sweeping crackdown in Malaysia has attracted growing criticism both within the country and overseas. The Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohammed, says the arbitrary detention of 93 politicians and leaders of social organizations is necessary to prevent racial riots. But most people see the imprisonments as a desperate attempt by the Prime Minister to save his political career - using fear to silence criticism.

Under the Internal Security Act 93 people have been detained, without trial or access to a lawyer, as of 7th November 1987. They are being kept in solitary confinement under continuous interrogation by Special Branch police. For many, no one knows in which jail they are being held. Whilst some of those detained are politicians, the cream of the nation's non-governmental groups have been skimmed as well. These are the leaders and activists involved in community work, civil rights issues, consumer and environmental activities, labour rights and socio-economic research.

Among the groups hit are Sahabat Alam Malaysia/Friends of the Earth Malaysia (which actively helps communities affected by ecological problems), the Consumer's Association of Penang (one of the most active and significant consumer organizations in the Third World), the Malaysian Trade Union Congress, the Transport Equipment Union and several groups associated with the Catholic and other Christian churches. It is ironic that these people have been imprisoned because of racial tensions. For they have been strong advocates of multi-racial harmony, working with the poor from all ethnic backgrounds.

The government's credibility and authority have been shaken by revelations and accusations of corruption and abuse of power. There has been a long list official scandals including the loss of $1,000 million by the state-owned Bank Bumiputra; the purchase and sale of a controlling stake in another bank, UMBC, by the Finance Minister in his personal capacity, on very profitable terms for him, and the government's award of a $1.5 billion highway contract to a private company owned by UMNO (the governing party) on terms suspiciously profitable to the company and extraordinarily expensive for the government Ministry of Works.

The recent arrests and associated moves have eroded most of the institutions of democracy of a country previously regarded with a great deal of respect by international opinion.

Internal protests have been led by Malaysia's first Prime Minister and 'Father of Independence' Tunku Abdul Rahman and the Catholic Archbishop of Malaysia.

What you can do to help the Malaysian political detainees. As an individual or organization write letters to: The Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohammed, Prime Minister's Department, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to protest against the detentions, request the release of the imprisoned or a fair trial now.


Godly grapple
Mexico's wrestling priest

The fight is over and cheers echo round the wrestling ring. But rather than gloating over his victory, the winner is on his knees - praying for forgiveness from God for certain 'over-enthusiastic' holds. This wrestler is no ordinary tough: he is Fray Tormenta (Brother Storm), Mexico's wrestling priest And he does it to raise money to support 85 abandoned children for whom he is mother, father and hero.

Outside the ring, and without his glittering mask and cloak, Brother Storm is the mild-mannered Father Sergio Gutierrez. Now if all this sounds more like the plot of an old movie than reality it is hardly surprising. For 15 years ago Gutierrez saw two popular films called Fray Tormenta and its sequel Fray Tormenta in the Ring. He was inspired. At that time the young priest was already caring for a dozen junkies in the port of Veracruz:

'The first one arrived by himself. He said he had no one'. The 'family' expanded rapidly, but was penniless. So Father Sergio decided to turn film into reality: to become Brother Storm and take to the ring.

It was hard enough, he recalls, persuading his bishop he harboured no ungodly thoughts whilst laying into his opponent. But finding an instructor was even more difficult. No wrestler was prepared to court eternal damnation by, however unintentionally, damaging an agent of God'. That was until Jose Ramirez came along,

Ramirez ignored his colleagues' warnings. As a result of this trainer's dedicated tuition, Fray Tormenta is now drawing some of the biggest crowds and highest fees in the business. And the money he makes all goes towards feeding, clothing, and educating the 85 children who live in his parish house in the small village of Xometla just outside Mexico City.

He does two or three fights a week, earning up to $130 per bout. He also angles for all the donations he can get. Living conditions for the children are not luxurious, but when the authorities investigated the parish house a couple of years ago they concluded that none of their own homes were as well run as Brother Storm's.

Now the 80-kilo wrestling cleric is planning to buy a plot of land on which to build a 'Children's City'. When not in the ring or looking after the children he is just an ordinary parish priest And as Father Sergio he manages to pack the church as full as he packs the auditorium in his no-holds-barred role of Brother Storm.

Lorna Scott Fox / Gemini


Lethal custom
Circumcision and AIDS

[image, unknown] African women are faced with two horrific prospects associated with sex. The first is the risk of getting AIDS, the second the brutal but still prevalent custom of female genital mutilation.

The idea that the two are related has been all but ignored up to now. But a group of Nigerian women activists are convinced that female circumcision is a major contributor to the spread of AIDS in Africa and are launching a continent-wide campaign to put an end to the practice.

Recent studies show that of the 98,000 reported cases of AIDS in Africa since 1984, 75 per cent were women from areas where female circumcision is widely practised

In Europe, the Americas and Australasia the majority of AIDS victims still come from two specific groups: homosexuals and intravenous drug users using dirty needles. It has been commonly assumed that the same factors are at work in Africa, namely: sexual promiscuity, the use of unclean hypodermic needles and homosexuality. But none of these reasons explains the high incidence of women who contract the disease in Central Africa where scientists estimate as many as five million people are carriers.

The common factor in the transmission of AIDS everywhere is the exchange of contaminated body fluids, particularly blood.

This gave anthropologist and researcher Uli Linke of the University of California, USA, the idea that in Central Africa it might be related to the common practice of female circumcision.

The most extreme form of female circumcision, infibulation, involves the complete removal of the vulval tissue including the clitoris and the labia. The details of what happens next are appalling but help explain how, as well as causing women considerable pain

and robbing them of a fulfilling sexual life, this practice puts them at high risk from AIDS infection.

After the tissue has been removed the sides of the wound are sewn together leaving a tiny opening perhaps the size of a matchstick. No anaesthetic is used in the operation, which lasts between 15 and 30 minutes, and the instruments used are not sterilized. Essentially, sexual intercourse is then impossible unless the vagina is reopened.

This is usually accomplished through forcible entry by the husband which often leads to haemorrhaging.

In women, Linke says, 'infibulation is associated not only with chronic pain, but with lesions in the vaginal tissue and bleeding leading to the presence of blood during intercourse. In some cases full penetration can take up to nine months, during which time anal intercourse is the common alternative'.

Linke stresses that the outbreak of Aids in Africa corresponds geographically with those regions in which female genital mutilation is still practised.

The Nigerian Women's Centre has endorsed Linke's research with studies of its own. For some time it has condemned female genital mutilation and called upon various African governments to legislate against it So far only the Government of Sudan has responded, although no attempt has been made to enforce the new law.

Meanwhile the Women's Centre - which is a self-supporting, non-governmental, voluntary organization - has launched a massive educational campaign. This involves home visits, countryside enlightenment tours where women are addressed in public places, and a media campaign. Hopefully this will help control the spread of AIDS while making women aware that they do not have to put their daughters through the violent and dangerous ordeal they themselves had to suffer.

For further information, or to give your support, contact
Mrs Hanna Edemlkpong,
Women's centre,
Box 185, Eket,
Cross River State,
Nigeria, West Africa.


Dirty tricks
WHO head hits out

Blackmail is the charge, put simply. Some governments - the US in particular - are withholding financial contributions in order to put pressure on the World Health Organization to keep quiet about information that goes against the interests of transnational companies. And the accusation comes from none other than the Secretary General of the World Health Organization (WHO) himself, Dr Halfdan Mahler.

He complains that he has been pressured not to disseminate certain technical health information on the grounds that this would be a 'supranational act that would damage commercial interests' or have 'adverse effects on tourism'.

Though Mahler names no names, 'commercial interests' is taken to refer to pressure from the US and some other Western governments in support of their home-based tobacco, alcohol and drug companies. Powerful lobbies frown on WHO's willingness to speak out against tobacco and alcohol consumption and to promote a restricted list of essential drugs as opposed to the inappropriate and often dangerous alternatives that are dumped on Third World markets.

The comment about 'adverse effects on tourism' is seen to refer to several African governments who have complained about WHO's publication of information on the occurrence of AIDS in their countries.

Another piece of political manoeuvring that concerns Mahler is the pressure being put on him by some governments to appoint their nationals to key staff positions within the WHO 'without a thought for their suitability'.

'Sometimes,' he comments, 'their insistence is even accompanied by hints that a positive response on my part is the key to voluntary contributions to WHO.'

The WHO, which is suffering from severe financial insecurity, is effectively being held hostage by countries which delay payment of their contributions. The US is the major culprit here. Ironically, the West should be grateful for WHO policies of the past decade. The eradication of smallpox - one of its major achievements - is known to have saved the industrialized states a billion dollars annually, because they have not had to provide vaccination and other facilities to their nationals travelling abroad as tourists and visitors. The WHO is now taking an international lead against AIDS with very meagre means at its disposal - an initiative that will benefit people the world over.

Chakravarthi Raghavan / Third World Network

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New Internationalist issue 179 magazine cover This article is from the January 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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