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Constraint without Coercion: Indirect Repression of Environmental Protest in Malaysia

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How can we begin to understand "repression" when a soft authoritarian regime like Malaysia both tolerates yet simultaneously hinders environmental contention? I argue that addressing indirect repression in the form of state-imposed constraints is one such point of departure. Beneath the veneer of tolerance, repression still exists in subtler forms. Such unobserved constraints emerge mainly through non-coercive bureaucratic processes and procedures undertaken by state agents. Though aggregated effect may not defeat a movement, it nevertheless elevates the overall cost of collective action by circumscribing movement forms and options, and demobilizing resources and supporters. This perspective goes beyond the conventional attention on coercion—the show and use of force—in non-democracies. Based primarily on activist accounts related to the Broga anti-incinerator campaign and the Kuantan protests against a rare earth plant in Malaysia, this article demonstrates how indirect repression, in the form of state-imposed constraints, is perceived, experienced, and responded to by activists. I point to four prominent ways in which the constraints indirectly undermine activists' campaigns: ostentatious surveillance, judicial channelling, occupational repression, and administrative constraints. Intended or otherwise, constraints seem less costly than coercion and help absolve political rulers of direct culpability. Besides completing the picture of repressive patterns under authoritarianism in Malaysia, this article's focus on constraints suggests that the authoritarian state is ambivalent about grassroots activism that does not challenge the political order.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 September 2016

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