The right to have rightsPosted: November 28, 2011
Last week I wrote about Sexualiti Merdeka and the debates that have gone on since about the rights of homosexuals in this conservative country. The issue was not only regarding whether homosexuals did have rights, but also the legality of the event itself, and whether the organisers had the right to hold such an event in the public arena.
We see this becoming more and more frequent. Since the first Bersih Rally in 2007, right before GE12, the rights of Malaysians to hold peaceful rallies and assemblies have been, at best, ambiguous. Candlelight vigils have seen heavy police presence, organisers of intended assemblies have met with much resistance in terms of getting the required permits, and the latest Bersih 2.0 rally saw a heavy clampdown of the entire city centre coupled with teargas and water cannons.
More recently, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced that the much abhorred Internal Security Act (ISA) would be repealed, but not before a couple of other Acts are enacted to take its place so that national security is not threatened. Enter the Peaceful Assembly Bill, which was tabled in Parliament last week.
One cannot help but wonder about the true purpose of this bill. As many have already said, the right to assemble peaceably and without arms is protected under the Federal Constitution. What this Bill intends to do, the way I see it, is to put shackles and cuffs as mandatory add-ons to this right of peaceful assembly.
Several parts of the Bill were changed, according to Minister in the PM’s Department Nazri Aziz said, in response to public outcry about the Bill being oppressive and even regressive. Many compared the 30-day advanced notice condition in the proposed Bill, with Myanmar’s most recently passed law which only required a 5-day notice. 30 days has now been shortened to 10 days.
Still, many other aspects of the proposed Bill leave a bad taste in the mouths of those who thirst for a country that respects the rights of its citizens, and those who hunger for more democratic space. Last Saturday, about 300 of such people gathered at KLCC for a half-hour protest against the Bill.
Dressed in yellow, presumably in support of the Bersih movement (as they have since urged supporters to don yellow every Saturday), they carried with them yellow balloons and placards – one of which read “Walking is a right, not a privilege”. Again and again, we come back to the issue of rights.
Gladly, the protest was without incident. Perhaps this is an indication to the authorities that Malaysians are responsible enough to hold and organise public gatherings without upsetting other people, or causing havoc. No need for heavy police presence, no need for scary teargas and water cannons. Once Malaysians have assembled and had their say, they will go as they came – peacefully.
The third and final reading of the Peaceful Assembly Bill is tomorrow, and according to Nazri, it “will be debated and be passed…” But the public protest is not yet over. The Malaysian Bar Council has taken on this issue and, without mincing words, has called this an “objectionable Bill… which effectively robs the rakyat of our constitutional right to freedom of assembly.”
There will be a Lawyer’s Walk tomorrow, a Walk for Freedom 2011, in response to the government’s seeming insistence on tabling and passing this as law. Whether the walk will amount to anything remains to be seen, but having said that, it is difficult not to support the initiative, as the President of the Malaysian Bar has so adequately put it: “It is not a piece of legislation which we, as lawyers, can watch enter our statute books without standing up against it. It is not a piece of legislation which we want future generations to inherit, without us walking, and spending every ounce of our energy to oppose.”