KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's prime minister on Thursday abandoned plans to repeal a controversial sedition law increasingly used against his regime's political opponents, as the opposition warned of a lurch back to authoritarian rule.
Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed in 2012 to abolish the British colonial-era Sedition Act, promising to move away from his regime's authoritarian tactics in a bid to shore up dwindling voter support.
But Najib on Thursday told his ruling party's annual congress the law would be retained and even enhanced, apparently bowing to pressure from conservatives who advocate a tougher hand in response to a series of electoral setbacks.
"As prime minister, I have decided that the Sedition Act will be maintained," Najib told delegates from his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
He said the law will "be strengthened and made more effective", drawing applause.
Critics accuse the government of using the sedition law to intimidate and silence an opposition movement that is threatening UMNO's hold on power.
Around three dozen people - mostly opposition politicians, including leader Anwar Ibrahim - have been investigated, charged or convicted for sedition this year.
The crackdown has been widely condemned by rights groups and criticised by the US Embassy in Malaysia.
Anwar accused Najib of caving to "rightists and racists" in the ruling establishment who are "instilling a culture of fear" in order to cling to power.
"This is the start of authoritarian rule by Najib," Anwar told AFP.
"They will use the sedition law to intimidate the legitimate voice of the opposition."
'Major reversal on human rights'
The Sedition Act, imposed by the British to quell a communist rebellion decades ago, outlaws speech deemed to incite unrest, racial or religious tensions, or insult Muslim-majority Malaysia's ceremonial Islamic royalty.
It carries a term of up to three years in jail.
Rights groups also condemned Najib's latest move, with Human Rights Watch calling it a "major reversal on human rights." "Since the Sedition Act gives the government the discretion to declare almost anything seditious, social activists and political opposition figures are likely to face a renewed crackdown that will be discriminatory and politically motivated," said Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director.
UMNO has dominated multi-racial Malaysia since independence in 1957, presiding over decades of enviable economic development under a system that guarantees ethnic Malays political pre-eminence and a range of preferential policies.
But support is shrivelling amid persistent allegations of corruption, abuse of power, and UMNO's practice of stoking racial and religious divisions to shore up its Muslim Malay political base.
Malays make up about two-thirds of the population, which also includes sizeable Chinese and Indian minorities who, along with many Malays, increasingly chafe under UMNO rule.
Najib came to power in 2009 and promised a more open, racially harmonious era.
But in elections last year, the opposition shocked UMNO by winning a majority of the popular vote for the first time, though it failed to take parliament.
Since then, the regime has steadily moved rightward, stepping up pressure on political opponents and non-Muslims and raising fears of worsening sectarian divisions.
In the run-up to this week's UMNO gathering, top party figures issued calls to retain the Sedition Act to maintain "harmony", while warning against any challenges to the current UMNO-dominated political system.
"They are sending a strong signal to non-Malays and to the Chinese that if you don't support UMNO, UMNO will keep moving to the right and you will regret it," said James Chin, a political analyst with the Jeffrey Cheah Institute, a Malaysian think tank.