The Malaysian Parliament has unanimously approved the controversial Peaceful Assembly Bill, which critics warned would make it extremely difficult for citizens to organize protest activities. Activists denounced it as a repressive measure intended to curtail the people’s freedom of speech and expression.
The opposition, for its part, was so outraged by the hasty introduction of the measure (MPs received copies of the bill only on November 22) that they staged a walkout during the voting process. Outside the parliament, lawyers organized a “freedom walk” to dramatize their rejection of the bill, which they think is in violation of several international human rights norms. Protesters also took Prime Minister Najib Razak to task for reneging on his pledge during the Malaysia Day celebration in September to review section 27 of the Police Act 1967 in order to uphold the people’s freedom of assembly.
Lim Chee Wee, president of the Malaysian Bar, identified the dangerous provisions of the bill that could undermine the constitutional rights of Malaysian citizens:
1) Prohibition of street protests;
2) Prohibition of organization of assemblies by persons below the age of twenty one years;
3) Prohibition of participation in peaceful assemblies of children below the age of fifteen years;
4) Unduly onerous responsibilities and restrictions on organizers and assemblies;
5) Excessive fines for non-compliance of the bill.
Civil libertarians are also horrified over the other insidious provisions of the bill, like the prohibition of rallies near a place of worship or any area that the government may declare as “protected,” the banning of foreign journalists in a protest assembly, and the granting of power to the police to use tear gas, chemical-laced water, batons and shields as well as arbitrary arrests on participants if these are deemed necessary by authorities to make the assembly peaceful and orderly. Activists are also worried over a provision that gives police forces the right to disperse an assembly if participants are heard giving statements that “promote feelings of ill-will, discontent or hostility among the public.”
Police are given such extensive powers to disperse assemblies without official permits that even an outdoor birthday party can be classified as an event that needs police approval. Furthermore, the police can impose numerous conditions when they approve the conduct of an assembly. And, if they decide to disperse a crowd, they are given the right to use “all reasonable force” in dealing with protesters.
Perhaps the restrictive Peaceful Assembly Bill is the government’s preemptive legal effort to prevent another Bersih (clean) march, which could further weaken the ruling coalition’s chances in the next elections. Bersih was organized in July by election reform advocates, but it has evolved into a strong political movement after the police violently dispersed a crowd of about 50,000 in the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
Maybe the bill won’t be able to stop Bersih or other protest assemblies organized by the big political forces, but it can minimize the influence of these events by limiting the protest actions in select venues. And because of the broad definitions used in the bill, it can also affect the activities of non-political groups.
After Bersih, everybody expected the government to implement reforms that would convince the people about its commitment to democracy and transparency. But with this bill, it seems the government prefers to provoke its enemies and weaken their ability to shape public opinion by banning street protests. The bill appears proof that the government is afraid of the radical potential of Bersih and the emergence of a Malaysian Spring that could finally deliver the fatal blow to the ruling coalition’s decades-old reign in Malaysia.