TIME Burma

Burma Counts Down to Elections But Democracy Remains a Distant Dream

Adam Dean's photos capture a still impoverished Burma as it stumbles through democratic transition, and ethnic strife, one year before landmark polls

In late October or early November next year Burma will go to the polls. However, the nation, officially now known as Myanmar, remains a long way from realizing true democracy.

Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 years under house arrest since returning to her homeland in 1988, was elected to parliament in April 2012, but remains constitutionally barred from becoming president.

In shunning the pro-democracy icon, Burma’s indomitable military demonstrates that it continues to influence all aspects of life.

The easing of Western economic sanctions has seen Burma’s long-cloistered economy pried open — cellphones and ATMs are now commonplace — but reform has largely been confined to sectors that benefit the generals and their cronies.

In ethnic border regions, rebel groups continue to battle the Burmese Army for greater autonomy, despite a raft of peace deals. Human rights abuses continue unabated; some advocacy groups say they have even increased.

In Burma’s western Rakhine State, the much-maligned Rohingya Muslim minority faces strict curbs on marriage, movement, population growth and education. Over 100,000 of this wretched community fester in squalid ghettos following pogroms by radical Buddhists. Access to food and healthcare is severely limited.

For them, as will the 60% of Burma’s 53 million population who continue to struggle in dire poverty, reforms have so far promised much but delivered little. For the past two years, photographer Adam Dean has been documenting Burma’s stumbling transition.

TIME Crime

At Least 3 Wounded in Shooting at Florida State University

Florida State Shooting
Students call their friends still locked down in Strozier Library after a shooting at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., on Nov. 20, 2014 Steven Cannon—AP

The campus was put on lockdown as police conducted a sweep

Correction appended, Nov. 20

An unidentified gunman was shot and killed by police after opening fire at Florida State University’s Strozier Library just after midnight Thursday in an attack that left at least three people wounded.

“We are reaching out to campus administrators to ensure anyone who witnessed this is able to get counseling,” a police spokesman told reporters. “We don’t have any other concerns about other shooters or any other threats to the campus.”

Officials sent out emergency-alert text messages warning students of a “dangerous situation” and calling on them to “seek shelter.” As the situation unfolded, social media was rife with images and videos of students taking cover on the university’s campus as police warned over a loud speaker that there had been a shooting at the library.

At least two individuals were being treated at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare hospital for gunshot wounds, according to ABC news.

An official at Florida State University Police Department declined to comment on the incident when contacted by TIME but said a statement would be released soon.

“This is always stuff you hear about happening at other schools like there are other crazed gunman at colleges but not at Florida State,” student Blair Stokes, who was in the library during the incident, told CNN. “I think this is another issue about gun control and about how we can be doing more in America.”

— With reporting by Turner Cowles

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of people treated at a local hospital for gunshot wounds. It was two people.

TIME Thailand

Thai Cinema Chain Pulls New Hunger Games Movie Because of the Three-Finger Salute

Thaialnd Hunger Games
An anticoup protester gives a three-finger salute as soldiers keep eyes on him from an elevated walkway near a rally site in central Bangkok on June 1, 2014 Thanyarat Doksone—AP

The gesture is synonymous with opposition to the Thai junta

One of Thailand’s main theater chains has pulled the latest installment of the hit Hollywood franchise The Hunger Games after five students were arrested for flashing the three-finger sign of dissent from the film at military dictator General Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The salute has become synonymous with opposition to Thailand’s May 22 military coup. A spokesman for Apex cinemas told the Bangkok Post on Wednesday that the company had dropped the sequel, Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, as “we feel our theaters are being used for political movements.”

The decision comes after Prayuth was speaking in Khon Kaen, a city in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region where the family of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra maintains fervent support. Five students showed up sporting T-shirts that read “We don’t want the coup” and made the three-fingered “District 12” salute at the junta leader before being arrested.

Prayuth appeared to laugh off the challenge to his authority. “Well, that’s it. But it’s O.K. Go easy on them. We will take care of the problems. Any more protests? Make them quick,” he said, according to the Post.

The students were released later that same evening and ordered to report to the military with their parents the next day. Later on Wednesday, 11 students were arrested at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument for staging a picnic in solidarity with those detained in Khon Kaen. (Thai students often disguise their protests as picnics by handing out food.)

“I’m surprised something like this hasn’t happened much earlier given the general discontent with the regime,” David Streckfuss, an American scholar of Thai history based in Khon Kaen, tells TIME.

According to the League of Liberal Thammasat for Democracy — an anticoup student group that had offered 160 free tickets for the movie premiere to anyone who could answer the question, “In what ways is the Capital in the Mockingjay is similar to Bangkok?” — Apex canceled the movie after receiving a call from the police. A spokesman for the cinema denied it was under any pressure when speaking to the Post.

Thailand’s 18th military coup since 1932 has seen more than 200 academics, activists and journalists arbitrarily detained for up to a month, according to Human Rights Watch, and strict censorship imposed. Some of those voicing criticism from abroad have had their families threatened and passports revoked.

In addition, the group Thai Lawyers for Human Rights has documented “hundreds, possibly thousands” of people in the northeast who have been “summoned, monitored, followed and harassed by the military,” says Streckfuss.

TIME indonesia

Female Police Recruits in Indonesia Are Made to Take ‘Virginity Tests’

Incoming Indonesian President Joko Widodo visits Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
Indonesian army and police during the rehearsal for the ceremony to greet Joko Widodo as the country's new leader at the presidential palace in Jakarta on Oct 19, 2014 Firman Hidayat—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

"All women who want to become policewomen should keep their virginity,” says the police force's jobs website

Woman applying to join Indonesia’s national police are subjected to “virginity tests” that are described by recipients as “painful and traumatic,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Tuesday.

Although senior police authorities insist the practice had been abolished, HRW claims to have interviewed female police officers and applicants in six Indonesian cities who had undergone the “discriminatory and degrading” test — two of them in 2014.

Nisha Varia, associate women’s rights director at HRW, said the practice “humiliates women” and called on police authorities to “immediately and unequivocally abolish the test, and then make certain that all police recruiting stations nationwide stop administering it.”

The practice is administered as part of the recruitment physical examination, two senior policewomen told HRW, and is intended to determine whether female applicants’ hymens are intact.

One 24-year-old recruit described the test as “really upsetting” in an interview with HRW. “I feared that after they performed the test I would not be a virgin anymore,” she said. “It really hurt. My friend even fainted because … it really hurt, really hurt.”

In response to the HRW report, a spokesman of the Indonesian police told local media that “there are no virginity tests in the selection of policewomen.” But he added: “In the selection process, there are comprehensive medical tests for men. In medical tests for men and women, we also conduct examinations of reproductive organs, not virginity tests.”

However, the Indonesian national police’s jobs website still states: “Policewomen must also undergo virginity tests. So all women who want to become policewomen should keep their virginity.”

Only 3% of Indonesia’s 400,000 police officers are women. Married women are not eligible to join the police.

“So-called virginity tests are discriminatory and a form of gender-based violence — not a measure of women’s eligibility for a career in the police,” Varia said. “This pernicious practice not only keeps able women out of the police, but deprives all Indonesians of a police force with the most genuinely qualified officers.”

— With reporting by Yenni Kwok

Read next: ‘Virginity Tests’ Throw Spotlight on Indonesia’s Conflicted Sexual Morality

TIME Burma

If Obama Only Talks About One Thing in Burma It Must Be the Rohingya

MYANMAR-ASEAN-DIPLOMACY-US
Burmese President Thein Sein, right, walks with U.S. President Barack Obama after the latter arrived at the Myanmar International Convention Center in the national capital Naypyidaw on Nov. 12, 2014 Christpohe Archambault—AFP/Getty Images

TIME Writer-Reporter focusing on Southeast Asia.

The country's future may depend on it

When U.S. President Barack Obama visited Burma, officially known as Myanmar, in November 2012, he found it abuzz with promise. Sanctions had been eased, political prisoners released and Rangoon hotels were teeming with foreign executives eager to harness the nation’s abundant natural resources, cheap workforce and enviable location between regional titans India and China.

So giddy was the postdictatorship atmosphere that Obama planted an agonizingly inappropriate kiss on Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. Not that any of the traditionally conservative Burmese minded, however, because the democracy icon was finally free after 15 years of house arrest and relishing life as an elected lawmaker.

But on Wednesday, Obama returned to a very different Burma. Economic liberalization has proved woefully inadequate and human-rights abuses continue unabated. Journalists must once again muzzle their criticism or face persecution. The military continues its assaults on ethnic rebels and, as Suu Kyi said last week, the democratic transition is “stalling.”

“Progress has not come as fast as many had hoped when the transition began four years ago,” Obama told the Irrawaddy magazine before his arrival in Naypyidaw for the East Asia Summit, a meeting of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members plus other world powers including China, Russia, India and the U.S. “In some areas there has been a slowdown in reforms, and even some steps backward.”

Visitors to Burma may find this surprising. Rangoon is a cacophony of building work, and the battered death-trap taxis of yore have been replaced by Japanese and South Korean imports. Illicit money changers have been swapped for ATMs. Cellphone SIM cards are no longer restricted or prohibitively expensive, meaning the once ubiquitous phone kiosks, where ordinary Burmese queued up to pay for a few minutes’ use of a fixed-line handset, lie largely idle — an anachronism for tourist snaps.

Yet this progress is a mere facade. “Aung San Suu Kyi may say that reform has stalled, but the reality is that it has regressed,” says Khin Ohmar, coordinator of Burma Partnership, a network of civil-society organizations. Like many longtime democracy activists, she still complains of “surveillance, scrutiny, threats and intimidation.”

Burma is unusual amongst authoritarian states embarking on reform, in that the same figures who ran the previous military dictatorship remain in charge today, and so practically all changes have benefited this coterie. Foreign direct investment, for example, has been confined to the extractive industries that are the purview of tycoons with military connections.

“The changes put in place by the [President] Thein Sein administration are not, for the most part, liberal market reforms, but simply expanded permissions and concessions, often given to the crony firms that dominate parts of the economy,” says Sean Turnell, a professor and expert on Burmese economics at Australia’s Macquarie University. In fact, he adds, “protectionist and antireform sentiment is building.”

Certainly, there is no significant economic legislation pending. Foreign banks have been allowed to set up shop, but can only work with other foreigners, using foreign currency and cannot offer retail services. This means the industry remains plagued by crippling inefficiencies.

Meanwhile, some 70% of Burma’s 53 million population toil in agriculture, where there have likewise not been any meaningful reforms. Poverty, exploitation and land grabs are rife. “The economic circumstances of Myanmar’s majority rural population are now marginally worse than before the reforms were launched,” says Turnell.

The media is once again manacled. The death of noted journalist Aung Kyaw Naing in military custody last month has been the nadir of a year that has also seen 10 reporters jailed. “Obama’s got to see it as another indication of sharply deteriorating press freedoms,” says David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch. In fact, of the 11 reformist pledges Thein Sein made to Obama back during his last visit, says Mathieson, “only about half of them have been met.”

Political reform is also backsliding. Suu Kyi will most likely romp home in next year’s national polls, provided they are as unfettered as the by-election that saw her enter the national legislature amid a landslide for her National League for Democracy party in April 2012. However, she remains constitutionally barred from the nation’s highest office. Negotiations to amend these restrictions — owing to her marriage to a Briton and sons who are foreign nationals — have broken down. Asked what the response would be should Obama try to press the issue, a Burmese government spokesman deemed constitutional reform “an internal affair.”

But it is the plight of the locally despised Rohingya Muslim population that is most pressing (not even the 69-year-old Suu Kyi has the moral fortitude to speak up for them). More than 100,000 of this wretched community fester in squalid displacement camps following attacks by radical Buddhists. They suffer restrictions on movement, marriage and education and thousands are planning to flee during the current “sailing season” on rickety boats to perceived safe havens like Malaysia, as thousands have before them. Many die every day.

However, analysts believe there is a political element to this humanitarian catastrophe. Resentment toward Muslims is a relatively recent phenomenon, with sporadic attacks on Muslim communities punctuating the past three years. Some say the unrest is being inculcated and encouraged in order to give the military continued justification for its wide-ranging powers. Government complicity in recent sectarian clashes has been alleged by the U.N. and Human Rights Watch (though furiously denied by Naypyidaw). And the tactic has been used before: anti-Muslim violence also curiously erupted amid the 1988 pro-democracy rallies.

Discontent is also brewing over myriad issues domestically: garment workers strike over pay and conditions; victims of land grabs are descending on the capital; activists protest Chinese-owned mines; farmers rally against dams that ravage the environment. But sectarian violence, or the threat of it, would be the trump card that would allow the army to suspend reforms. Military spending has already increased in absolute terms during Thein Sein’s time in office. Now there are rumors that army chief Min Aung Hlaing is maneuvering for a run at the presidency. If so, there will be precious little hope for reforming the military, which is the single greatest impediment to tackling Burma’s abysmal human-rights record.

The Rohingya crisis is a gift to Burmese generals hoping to shore up their positions and the military’s, and for that reason the Rohingya lie at the core of the Burma’s economic and political transition. Obama “is dealing with a time bomb,” says Khin Ohmar. “He may face resentment for saying something about the Rohingya, but he has to.”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Burma

Top Legal Academics Want Burmese Generals Indicted for War Crimes

Guards of honour salute during an event marking the anniversary of Martyrs' Day at the Martyrs Mausoleum in Yangon
Burmese soldiers salute during an event marking the anniversary of Martyrs' Day at the Martyrs' Mausoleum in Rangoon on July 19, 2014 Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

The abuses are described as "too grave to be ignored"

Leading generals in Burma’s powerful military should be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to researchers who claim to have accumulated enough evidence to mount a successful prosecution under international law.

A four-year investigation by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School focused on an offensive in the eastern part of Burma, also known as Myanmar, in 2005 and 2006. The study documented soldiers firing mortars at villages, slaughtering fleeing villagers, destroying homes and food, laying land mines indiscriminately and forcing civilians to work without pay.

On Friday, a legal memorandum, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in Eastern Myanmar, was released that implicates three commanders in international crimes as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

“These are serious allegations that demand a determined, good faith response by the Myanmar government and military,” said Tyler Giannini, co-director of the clinic. “The abuses perpetrated by the military have been too widespread, too persistent, and too grave to be ignored.”

Burma has been transitioning from military dictatorship to civilian government since 2011; however, many former junta figures remain key players in the new quasi-democratic administration headed by President Thein Sein.

Asked about the war-crimes report, a government spokesman told the New York Times, “Both the Tatmadaw [Burmese military] and ethnic armed groups might have violated human rights.”

Read next: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence on Burma’s Human-Rights Abuses Is Appalling.

TIME Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi’s Silence on Burma’s Human-Rights Abuses Is Appalling

Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi listens as reporter asks her a question during a news conference in Yangon
Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi listens as reporter asks her a question during a news conference at the National League for Democracy party head office in Rangoon on Nov. 5, 2014 Soe Zeya Tun—Reuters

The Nobel laureate's refusal to condemn documented atrocities suggests that political calculation has trumped human rights in her thinking

Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is not happy with the pace of democratic change in Burma, officially now known as Myanmar. On Wednesday, the Nobel Peace Prize winner gave a press conference to denounce the “stalling” reform process.

“The U.S. government has been too optimistic,” she said. “What significant reform steps have been taken in the last 24 months?”

This remark comes days before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Rangoon, and after talks to reform the nation’s much maligned constitution broke down between Suu Kyi, Burma’s powerful military generals, the current military-backed government and various ethnic leaders.

The constitution bars Suu Kyi from becoming President in next year’s elections because she was married to a British man and has two sons who are foreign citizens. It also guarantees 25% of legislative seats to military appointees. Since more than 75% of lawmakers are required to enact any constitutional change, this gives the generals a de facto parliamentary veto.

Talks aimed at amending these provisions, which were shamelessly included with the sole purpose of barring Suu Kyi from the nation’s highest office, have gone nowhere, and the 69-year-old is attempting one last throw of the dice — appealing to Obama to put pressure on current President Thein Sein, himself a former junta general.

“Democratic reform would not be successful alone with the parliament,” Suu Kyi told assembled media.

Nobody would argue against Burma’s current constitution desperately needing revision, or pretend that reforms haven’t stalled. In fact, when Obama returns to Burma next week, he will find one of his few foreign policy successes in tatters.

“The hope and the optimism we had in 2012, when the country was opening up, has all been squandered,” Aung Zaw, managing editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, tells TIME, lamenting a “backsliding reform process” akin to watching “a train wreck in slow motion.”

Even so, Suu Kyi’s condemnation is curious.

It comes after her steadfast refusal to criticize the military or the government for myriad human-rights abuses. In Burma’s west, for example, more than 100,000 Rohingya Muslims languish in squalid displacement camps, but Suu Kyi repudiates evidence-based allegations of ethnic cleansing by Human Rights Watch and instead calls the crisis an “immigration issue.”

In northernmost Kachin state, civilians face “attacks against civilian populations, extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, internal displacement, land confiscation, the recruitment of child soldiers, forced labor and portering.” That’s been documented by the U.N., but Suu Kyi has refused to condemn those atrocities. Her silence is so pointed that 23 local NGOs signed an open letter of protest.

Other causes of concern, like the 10 journalists jailed this year on the flimsiest of pretenses, are brushed aside with platitudinous references to the “rule of law.” Meanwhile, Suu Kyi’s own Rule of Law Parliamentary Committee has achieved “nothing at all,” says Aung Zaw.

“We would’ve liked to have seen Aung San Suu Kyi speak on human-rights issues in a more forthright way,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of the Fortify Rights advocacy group. “She’s issued equivocal statements on serious human-rights violations, in some cases amounting to crimes against humanity.”

In fact, when a high-level delegation from Human Rights Watch came to Burma earlier this year for landmark talks, they met with senior government officials including the President but were snubbed by Suu Kyi.

And that’s not all. Suu Kyi’s baffling behavior goes beyond the area of human rights.

In April 2013, peaceful protesters blockaded a Chinese-owned copper mine near Monywa, around 450 miles north of Rangoon. The police attacked them using white phosphorous, leaving dozens with horrific burns, including traditionally sacrosanct Buddhist monks.

Suu Kyi headed the investigation commission but found that the mine must continue operations or else risk “hurting Burma,” despite the fact that it is desecrating the environment, was set up without scrutiny by the junta, and provides no jobs for local people. In unprecedented scenes, the National League for Democracy (NLD) leader was harangued by furious locals.

Suu Kyi has certainly experienced enormous personal sacrifice. Since returning to her homeland in 1988, she has spent 15 years under house arrest, not even being able to see her beloved husband Michael Aris before he died.

But this is also why her current aloofness is so painful to behold.

“The NLD under her leadership has had big question marks,” says Aung Zaw, “and they misread the whole situation.”

In August 2011, Suu Kyi met Thein Sein for the first time, formally marking her belated return to mainstream politics. The following April, she and 42 NLD colleagues were elected to parliament in a landslide amid jubilant scenes.

The common perception among analysts is that some deal was struck to allow Suu Kyi to stand for election in exchange for muting her criticism of the generals. The presumption was that reforms would take baby steps forward. But, three years on, there has been no progress, and she is partly culpable.

When Suu Kyi finally gave her Nobel acceptance speech in June 2012 — the prize having been originally bestowed in 1991 during a period of house arrest — she said that “receiving the Nobel Peace Prize means personally extending my concerns for democracy and human rights beyond national borders.”

But her present recalcitrance suggests that her own political career may be more important, even if we accept the mitigation that it is for some vague greater good.

“There is no version of pragmatism that would make silence on human-rights atrocities defensible,” says Smith. “These are some of the most serious human-rights violations that can be committed.”

Admittedly, Suu Kyi has always said she is a politician, rather than a human-rights defender. But the truth today is that she is pretty awful at both.

TIME Malaysia

Malaysia’s Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim Awaits Sodomy Appeal Verdict

MALAYSIA-POLITICS-OPPOSITION
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim addresses the media after a meeting with senior Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) leaders in Subang Jaya on Aug. 17, 2014. Manan Vatsyayana—AFP/Getty Images

The 67-year-old's conviction has been slammed by human rights groups as "politically motivated"

Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim returns to court next week to learn whether he will be jailed on sodomy charges.

On Tuesday, Malaysia’s Federal Court will hear Anwar’s appeal of his March conviction for engaging in homosexual acts, charges both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say amount to “politically motivated persecution.”

Speaking to TIME on Friday, Anwar said his chances “didn’t look good.”

“Most of Malaysia does not believe that I will get a fair trial or a decision based on the facts of the law,” he said. “But I want to show young people that [my conviction] is a small price to pay in the struggle for freedom and justice.”

Anwar was originally arrested on July 16, 2008, after a former male aide alleged the pair had engaged in consensual sexual relations — criminalized under Malaysia’s colonial-era “sodomy law.” The High Court then acquitted Anwar on Jan. 9, 2012, ruling that DNA samples vital to the prosecution case could have been contaminated.

On March 7, 2014, the Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal and sentenced Anwar to five years imprisonment. The hearing was originally scheduled for April but was curiously moved forward a month. This meant Anwar was disqualified from running in the Kajang district state assembly election on March 23.

Phil Robertson, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, has urged the Malaysian authorities to drop the case or risk making a “travesty of the country’s criminal justice system.”

“Prosecuting Anwar for something that should never be considered a crime shows how far the government is prepared to go to remove a political opponent,” he said.

Anwar’s imprisonment has been stayed during his appeal, but if convicted he faces five years in prison plus a mandatory five-year prohibition on running for office, effectively ending the 67-year-old’s political career.

Malaysia’s May 5, 2013, general elections saw the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) coalition led by Anwar win 50% of the popular vote. However, this only translated to 89 parliamentary seats due to the “first past the post” electoral system. (The incumbent National Front coalition government of Prime Minister Najib Razak gained 47% of the vote but 133 seats.)

Anwar and independent observers have alleged electoral irregularities and widespread gerrymandering, and thousands took to the streets to demand an investigation. Najib’s administration strenuously denies any impropriety.

TIME Malaysia

A Guy Held a Dog-Petting Event and Got Death Threats From Muslim Hard-Liners

TO GO WITH AFP STORY: Malaysia-energy-da
A boy plays with dogs outside his long house in Nahajale, Malaysia's Sarawak region, on Sept. 25, 2011 Mohd Rasfan—AFP/Getty Images

Hard-liners in Malaysia insist he “should be stoned to death” because dogs are considered unclean

A Malaysian social activist has received death threats and torrents of online abuse for organizing a dog-familiarization event that religious conservatives claim insults Islam.

More than 1,000 people attended the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event in the affluent Bandar Utama neighborhood on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on Sunday to learn about Islam’s views on canines and become familiar with the animals, which are a source of fear for many Malaysians.

But the event’s planner, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, has now been forced into hiding after hard-liners insisted he “should be stoned to death.”

Traditionally, dogs are considered haram, or forbidden, in Islam as they are thought of as dirty. But while conservatives advocate complete avoidance, moderates simply say Muslims should not touch the animal’s mucous membranes — such as the nose or mouth — which are considered especially impure. Even if that happens, they say, there is a special cleansing ritual that can be followed.

How to touch dogs in an Islamic way was the point of the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event. Although officially haram, many Malaysians own dogs for security, partly because of a worsening national crime wave. (Malaysia’s Selangor Islamic Religious Department, an influential clerical body, says that Muslims can own dogs as working animals, for security, hunting and other functions.)

Siti Sakinah, an NGO worker, attended the event with her children in order to “overcome their fear and to learn that dogs are also creatures created by Allah that need love and care,” she told the Malaysian Insider.

On Thursday, respected Malaysian human-rights campaigner Marina Mahathir wrote an op-ed in the Star newspaper defending Syed Azmi and slamming the “ignorance” of those orchestrating the hate campaign.

“I didn’t realize that kindness is now considered despicable but then the world has turned upside down,” she wrote. “Never mind that the intention of those who attended was to learn about one of God’s own creatures and how to treat them kindly.”

The dog debate in Malaysia is in fact nothing new. In colonial times, local people were forced to deal with an alien influx of dogs brought by British planters and officials, which in turn made the pets fashionable among many prominent Malays, including royals.

At this time, a vibrant and largely cordial discourse thrived between the kaum tua (old conservatives) and kaum muda (young moderates) about how to handle dogs. The issue was even documented in a book by celebrated American historian William R. Roff.

Today, however, this polarity is hugely politicized. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government has brazenly fostered religious conservatism to win the ethnic Malay vote, and some of those attacking Syed Azmi say that he is part of a Zionist plot.

One Facebook user’s comment — as reported by the Malaysian Insider — illustrates the level of paranoia in the hard-line camp. The user said the dog-familiarization event was part of “a Jewish agenda to Christianise Muslim-Malaysians through subtle measures.”

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert based in Kuala Lumpur for the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies, tells TIME that the conservatives “have been dominating the discourse and want to continue imposing their perspective.”

Marina argues that the storm has been cooked up by authorities attempting to maintain control. After all, she asks, “how does hating anything and everything make us happy and better Muslims?”

Read next: Shari‘a Law Is Threatening LGBT Rights Across Muslim-Majority Southeast Asia

TIME South Africa

Oscar Pistorius Gets 5 Years for the Culpable Homicide of Reeva Steenkamp

South African Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius attends his sentencing at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria
South African Olympic and Paralympic track star Oscar Pistorius attends his sentencing at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria Oct. 21, 2014 Herman Verwey—Reuters

The Paralympic gold medalist was acquitted of murder last month

Athlete Oscar Pistorius was sentenced Tuesday to five years imprisonment for the Valentine’s Day killing of his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The 27-year-old double-amputee was found guilty of culpable homicide after shooting Steenkamp through the toilet door of his home in Pretoria on Feb. 14, 2013.

The “Blade Runner,” as Pistorius is known due to his trademark prosthetic limbs, claims he thought an intruder lurked inside, but the state maintained that he shot four times with the intention of killing Steenkamp after the couple had argued.

The South African was acquitted of murder by Judge Thokozile Masipa last month after a high-profile trial that was televised around the world.

In sentencing Pistorius, Masipa said she weighed, “The personal circumstances of the accused and interests of society.”

She added: “A non-custodial sentence would send the wrong message to the community, but a long sentence would also not be appropriate.”

Pistorius made history as the first Paralympian to compete against able-bodied athletes at the 2012 London Olympics. He has apparently been suffering from depression since Steenkamp’s death.

A separate firearms charge received three years imprisonment, suspended for five years.

Read next: Heated Reaction in South Africa to Pistorius Sentence

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