Five years on…
It has been 5 long years since Pastor Raymond Koh was suddenly taken away in February 2017, yet it seems like just yesterday.
So much has happened since. We now know Pr. Raymond was abducted by the Special Branch of the Malaysian police, just like the Shiite activist Amri Che Mat, in November 2016. We know the police were anything but diligent in investigating their disappearances, just as in the case of the disappearance of Pastors Joshua Hilmy and Ruth Sitepu, in December 2016. We know the police tried to hide the truth in these cases.
It’s very disturbing that Malaysia has sunk to a new low, joining the ranks of the Philippines, Sri Lanka and many South American nations. I remember my Sri Lankan course-mate telling me how, “they come in white vans in the middle of the night to bundle people away, never to be seen again.”
A ripple effect…
I can only imagine the enormity of the grief and anguish in Raymond’s family given the gnawing uncertainties. It’s not death but a disappearance. No body, no closure. Only the ongoing, debilitating distress of the unknown.
I first heard of his disappearance via social media. I remember feeling angry and appalled at the CCTV footage of the men in balaclava masks and black SUVs forcefully taking him away. I had to pinch myself, saying this is not a TV serial!
In retrospect, it was not totally unexpected, since he was already a marked man since 2011 (or even before), when JAIS (Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor) raided Damansara Utama Methodist Church (DUMC), Petaling Jaya.
Following his abduction, I sensed an aura of fear amidst those close to him. People asked me about what he did, which church he belonged to. A close friend of his family reacted in a hush-hush manner, cautioning me not to say a word on this matter or if I must, just say “I don’t know”.
To discuss the subject via chats, they began using an App called WIRE because it was deemed safer for communications. Another social worker friend had recoiled in depression, worrying that she may be a potential target, since she worked among other ethnic groups. Such were the terrors which silently and scarily penetrated us in the aftermath of Raymond’s abduction.
I knew of Pr. Raymond more than a decade ago. I had come to know and respect his work with HIV/AIDS victims, though I didn’t meet him personally until 2011.
That was when he dropped by the TENAGANITA Shelter for Trafficked Women, in February 2011 with fellow workers to collect our donations of pre-loved items. I can remember vividly his cheeky grin; his weather-worn face reflecting years of hard work; his hardy demeanor, and his humility in accepting such hand-outs for his Shelter Home.
I met him again on the morning after the JAIS Raid at DUMC, on 4th Aug 2011, when he came by to collect their stuff after that eventful Thanksgiving Dinner. He looked worried and tense.
That raid at DUMC sculpted many dark memories. We were running a mobile medical clinic at PJ Old town, when my director was called back to handle the police raid at the Centre premises. We returned to see a huge gathering of about 30 officers from JAIS and the Police in uniform. They had barged in without a warrant. They had harassed guests. They had taken photos and recorded videos.
I remember taking photos of them snatching program sheets, when suddenly my camera was snatched away by one of them! I was so furious, I shouted at him, at them, “this is not your property, you have no right to be here, but you can video and I cannot, what is this?!!”. I snatched back my camera, my heart pounding furiously. My little tantrum of righteous anger!
The aftermath of the Raid…
That whole night was a very tense affair. I could feel many eyes on me, on us. Soon I got wind of an ultra-right-wing website, carrying a post with a picture of me and my green bag, lined with badges, with the focus on one badge inscribed “FRIENDS of BERSIH”. There were calls to “eliminate enemies” like me.
That totally freaked me out! I began imagining men in black breaking into my apartment where I lived alone, and shadows waiting at the lift. The fear was so real and palpable that I asked a lawyer-friend for advice. His astute reply was to just wait it out, and I did. Nothing untoward happened. I now realize how effective that bully/fear tactic was. It had intimidated and terrorized me, at least for 2 horrifying nights.
Abduction in broad daylight!
And I can’t imagine how much worse it would have been for Pastor Raymond and his family since the raid in 2011. I heard they lived like fugitives, crossing borders to escape being hunted and pursued by the religious police. They were courageous to say the least. Little did they know that six years later, he would be forcefully abducted!
Enforced disappearance is a dehumanizing evil. It brings turmoil and sufferings to families and the community at large. It plays on fears and insecurities. How does one begin to deal with such an atrocity?
I remembered going to every vigil, signing every related petition, being consumed by indignation and a sense of helplessness. It was heartening to see friends and organizations came alongside the family in their grief and loss.
And the church lamented … though I think not enough
Lament (according to Brueggemann) ‘dangerously’ helps us to see the world as it really is – to see the darkness of Enforced Disappearances, and to see it as God sees it.
Lament opens our eyes to our shared humanity.
Lament enables us to identify and empathize with those enduring the injustice, and then to advocate for those who are suffering, to advocate for them to the One who promised He would remove all suffering (Westermann).
Lament builds solidarity – that which I see in the people at the vigils, in the various individuals and groups working alongside to hold the distressed together.
Lament also forces us to answer the challenging questions:
How have I contributed to the suffering?
Why do I ‘stand far off’?
I was touched by Dr Faizal Musa (“Faisal Tehrani”), a Muslim who spoke at the vigil this year to mark the fifth anniversary of the abduction of Raymond Koh. He quoted Pope Francis twice. In one of them, the Pope urges us to live out of the belief that “we need one another.”
Let us not fall prey to fear tactics. Let us not perpetuate violence.
Let us allow our faith to hold us together, as Archbishop Julian Leow exhorted during the fifth Anniversary.
While we strive for justice, let us remember Pope Francis’s words:
It is precisely God’s mercy that leads us to achieve true justice…
only by responding with good can evil truly be conquered.