Images from Malaysiakini, The Malaysian Insider and Cindi Loo
o to the PA Bill!” “No to the PA Bill!” “Hidup Rakyat!” (Long live the citizens) “Bebas Himpun!” (Freedom to Assemble)
These are the recent faces, and recent chants of the people who were against the Peaceful Assembly Bill. Following the first reading by Law Minister Nazri Aziz last Tuesday tabling this Bill, this then spawned immediate negative public reaction from the Opposition and civil societies, and in haste, when Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak had a second reading last Thursday, it triggered some 50 people, mostly activists, to assemble in front of the Parliament protesting against the Bill.
The Peaceful Assembly Bill, said to be taking a reformist approach at ensuring ordinary people will be able to participate more in democratic processes, was seen as a regressive attempt to silence the public. The Malaysian public and social media groups scorned at this failed attempt by the Prime Minister to live up to his pledge on bringing democratic reforms to current outdated laws following the crackdown on protesters participating Bersih 2.0.
Among the provisions introduced includes organisers of assemblies having to give the police 30 days’ notice, in which whether the assembly can go on is subject to their approval, disallowing teenagers under 15 years-old to participate in any form of assembly besides religious and cultural events, and those under 21 years-old from organizing and participating in assemblies. Of course, the most damning provision was that street protests in any form will be disabled under this new Bill, if it was passed in the Parliament (you can read the full Bill HERE or the simplified FAQ HERE).
What happened next was a swift reaction by civil societies to make sure their voices were heard. On Twitter and Facebook, the groups went abuzz with organizing protests after protests to keep the momentum building and the pressures consistent and constant.
From Thursday’s protest, people then began to meet up in KLCC Park to show the public eye and the world that Malaysians deserve the right to walk freely and assemble peacefully without the government imposing any laws that determine how or what kind of protests, followed by a candlelight vigil that happened throughout major cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh, and Penang. Major squares in Kuala Lumpur such as Dataran Merdeka were closed off by the police as they were addressing “security concerns”.
Other citizen initiatives cleverly used internet tools like blogs and social media were started up, such as Hello MP 2011, Kill the Bill Picbadges, and Twitter hashtags #JomkeJalan (translated as Come, to the Streets) and #PA2011 were being used to spread information and awareness about the Peaceful Assembly Bill to Malaysians.
The fire was further fanned by news from Malaysia’s Southeast Asian neighbour Myanmar, which recently announced that its Parliament has approved a Bill that guarantees Burmese the freedom to assemble peacefully.
Some of the provisions made known include a 5 days’ notification to the authorities before the assembly, while protesters were allowed to bring flags and other accessories to show their voices. There was no outright ban of street protests, certainly there are rooms for improvement on the Bill, but this is the best reform agenda that the Myanmar government has after a brutal oppression by the military junta on the monks and protesters in 2007.
Many Malaysians begin to draw comparisons between the Peaceful Gathering and Procession Bill and the Peaceful Assembly Bill, loudly exclaiming that Myanmar has better democratic reforms than Malaysia’s, especially when Najib proudly claimed that Malaysia has the “best democracy in the world” in his reform speech back in September 15.
Singaporeans also begin to compare the oppressive provisions between the Peaceful Assembly Bill and their very own Public Order Act which was passed in 2009, which gives more power to the police to suppress voices of dissent, reducing citizen action to purely online dissent or public gatherings indoors. Even if there’s any public gatherings outdoors, it can only be done at Speakers Corner in Hong Lim Park.
Citizens taking charge
With the recent announcement by Nazri that the Bill will be voted in on Tuesday, all hopes, all the protests that were organized throughout the weekend, seemed lost. Even though the Cabinet has promised to make amendments to the Bill, they seemed adamant in passing the Bill as a means to control the voices of the people.
But in Malaysia, news indicates a shift of voices, with political parties hinting that they’re wary of the citizens. From criticizing statements by the ruling parties, to denouncing Opposition party leaders for their ignorant statements, citizens have been on high alert, criticising the political powers who sometimes take issues to their own stride, without taking into the account what the citizens feel about the changes they make towards policies, or the impact it brings to the Malaysian society in general. Political parties now find themselves under pressure, under a lockdown and experiencing trust issues when citizens discover flaws in their public statements and how they conduct the country.
Coming tomorrow, 29 November 2011, the Malaysian Bar Council, the official association comprising of lawyers, will initiate a large-scale Walk for Freedom, as an attempt to prevent the bill from passing. East Malaysians who are cannot fly across the South China Sea to join the protest will also stage a protest in their respective cities as a dissenting voice against the hypocritical government. Should the Bill be passed, Walk for Freedom may go down in history as the last ditch effort to protect the civil liberties for the people of Malaysia.
The political powers from either ruling parties or Opposition parties will need to realize that civil societies and ordinary citizens will not take this lying down. The dynamics of power may be in their hands, but the dynamics of voices has shifted, and things will become noisier from now on.