Activists rally for right to protest

Fauwaz Abdul Aziz and Khairil Zhafri | Dec 19, 07 11:35am

More than 250 political and social activists demonstrated this morning outside the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur against the government’s recent clampdown on street protests.

About 30 police officers kept a close watch on the protest which began at 11am. No action was taken to disperse the crowd and there were no signs of water cannons or Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) personnel being deployed either.
Even the appearance of about 20 Light Strike Force personnel about halfway through the event did not have an impact on the gathering.
This is a departure from recent demonstrations where the police used tear gas and chemical-laced water against the protesters, such as last month’s Hindraf and Bersih gatherings.
A senior police officer from the Dang Wangi district police station said his officers will not move in “as long as the crowd was peaceful and under control.”
Organisers of today’s protest – the Coalition to Defend Right to Assemble made up of four opposition parties and 46 non-governmental organisations – later handed a memorandum to Suhakam commissioners.
They demanded for the right to peaceful assembly as enshrined under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, and backed Suhakam’s stand in calling for the repeal of Section 27 of the Police Act which stipulates the requirement of a police permit to hold a rally.
Suhakam was also urged to make representation to the Attorney-General with the aim of taking action against those parties – including the police – that have violated the people’s right to peacefully assemble.
It’s not haram
The memorandum further opposed the action of the government in undermining the right of citizens to assemble peacefully by using such means as obtaining unprecedented restraining court orders.
These injunctions – which give the police the right to ‘arrest on sight’ both organisers and participants of street protests – were invoked both on the Nov 25 Hindraf rally as well as on Dec 11 when polls watchdog coalition Bersih sought to submit a petition to Parliament.
Blasting the government’s denunciation of demonstrations and street protests as being against ‘Malaysian culture’, several speakers said it was only human to express grievances when other channels of redress had been closed.
Among them, PKR vice-president R Sivarasa noted that peaceful street demonstrations were held as part of the independence struggle more than 50 years ago.
Echoing his point, PKR supreme council member Badrul Hisham Shaharin said: “If peaceful assembly is not part of Malaysian culture, we say it is human culture to do so!”
Deputy chairperson of the Bar Council’s human rights committee Amer Hamzah Arshad spoke of the duty to protest when abuse was rampant.
“When justice is not upheld, dissent becomes an obligation,” said the lawyer.
PAS vice-president Mohamad Sabu, meanwhile, said the struggle of political and social activists was to restore what the government and police have deemed ‘haram’ (prohibited) to its rightful place in society as something ‘halal’ (permitted).
What is illegal is the police’ crackdown on peaceful gatherings, said Mohamad.
“There is no such thing as haram assemblies. They only become haram when the (police) use weapons and hard objects (to crackdown on peaceful protests),” said Mohamad.
On Suhakam’s agenda
Malaysia Youth and Students Democratic Movement (Dema) leader Simon Ooi said Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi should not issue challenges and threats to people seeking to exercise their rights.
“Peaceful assembly is as basic a right as the right to eat and drink,” said Ooi, adding: “Do not challenge the people!”
Malek Hussin, who heads independent elections watchdog Mafrel, said the right to peaceful dissent is enshrined in both the Federal Constitution as well as international documents on human rights.
“It is part of human culture to oppose oppression. It is part of human culture to oppose corruption. It is part of human culture to oppose the abuse of power,” said Malek.
Three Suhakam commissioners, Dr Denison Jayasooria, N Siva Subramariam and Asiah Abu Samah, were present to receive the memorandum.
Jayasooria has promised the protesters that he would convey the message contained in the memorandum to other commissioners at Suhakam’s next monthly meeting.
He also said that the issue of the right to assembly will again be addressed in the commission’s next annual report to Parliament.
Punctuating the calls for the right to public gatherings, Badrul Hisham announced that a peaceful assembly would be held this Saturday night at Dataran Merdeka to show solidarity for victims of the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial.
The gathering, organised by the anti-ISA movement GMI, is also aimed at pressuring the government to abolish the draconian law, said Badrul.
The protest today ended peacefully at about noon with the crowd dispersing soon after the memorandum was delivered to Suhakam.