KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysian authorities are carrying out the broadest crackdown on the political opposition and social activists since the era of strongman leader Mahathir Mohamad, as traditionalists in the long-ruling ethnic Malay party appear to gain the upper hand.
The setback for civil liberties in the multi-ethnic former British colony, which had appeared set on a path of greater openness just two years ago, comes as democracy retreats across mainland Southeast Asia following a military coup in Thailand and fading reform hopes in Myanmar and Cambodia.
Susan Loone, a reporter at online news site Malaysiakini, which is critical of the government, was the latest to be detained by police on Thursday under the colonial-era Sedition Act, days after a law professor was charged over comments in an online news article on a 2009 political crisis.
Prosecutors have charged four people with sedition in the past two weeks, including the professor, with new police investigations against opposition figures or activists being announced frequently.
This year, seven opposition politicians, six of them members of parliament, have been charged with crimes, including sedition, for things they have said. Another has been convicted.
The opposition's de facto leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was convicted and sentenced to jail in March on a sodomy charge that rights groups say was politically motivated.
The three-party opposition, which has eroded the ruling coalition's majority in two straight elections, says the 1948 Sedition Act is being employed selectively against its members, allies and social activists to undermine the alliance.
The sedition law criminalizes speech with an undefined"seditious tendency".
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, said the prosecutions were reminiscent of so-called Operation Lalang in 1987 under Mahathir, when more than 100 opposition politicians and activists were arrested under an old Internal Security Act (ISA) which allowed detention without trial.
"The parameters are basically the same - you are using an antiquated draconian law to go after the opposition," he said.
The reason for the crackdown is unclear, but pressure has been building on Prime Minister Najib Razak from conservatives in his ruling United Malays National Party (UMNO) to take a tougher line against opponents.