FOURTEEN years ago, I was arrested. I was among more than 100 local and foreign participants who were detained because we were involved in the Asia Pacific Conference for East Timor II (Apcet II) that was held in Kuala Lumpur in November 1996.
Mind you, there was nothing illegal about Apcet II. Many would even argue that the regional conference was playing an important role: calling for East Timor’s independence from an often brutal 24-year Indonesian occupation. But we were arrested nonetheless, because the Malaysian government then was intent on banning the conference. The police arrested us for threatening public order after a 400-strong Barisan Nasional Youth mob, led by Umno Youth, stormed into the conference and assaulted conference participants.
And so it was a victory of sorts when the Kuala Lumpur High Court declared on 22 Dec 2009 that the police had acted arbitrarily and illegally by arresting us. For me, the decision was significant not because of the amount of general damages I stand to win if the court’s decision is not overturned. Rather, the court’s decision is important because it reprimands the abuse of power and the use of violence. And unfortunately, not enough of that has been happening lately.
Any observer of contemporary Malaysian politics will note that threatening mob behaviour is often used to silence dissenting views and squash citizens’ rights to assemble and express peacefully. It would not escape the astute among us that frequently, these mobs comprise political party members, whether from Umno, PAS or Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).
And in these instances, like in Apcet II, the police were more intent on stopping the peaceful assembly of citizens than they were in taking to task citizens who resort to threatening and thuggish behaviour to silence others.
Apart from Apcet II, where only four Umno Youth members were slapped with a minimal fine for disrupting the conference, some other memorable examples of mob rule spring to mind:
On 18 Aug 2000, some 300 Umno Youth members demonstrated in front of the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur over Suqiu‘s 17-point Election Appeal. The demonstrators threatened to burn down the building.
In March 2006, 50 Kelana Jaya Umno members visited Kelana Jaya Member of Parliament (MP) Loh Seng Kok, from the MCA, at his service centre at night to intimidate him because they disagreed with his comments in Parliament about non-Muslim concerns.
In 2006, interfaith group Article 11 was also told by police to cut short its public forums in both Penang and Johor Baru because of the threatening mob outside. The police said they could not guarantee the safety of the peaceful public forums from the demonstrators.
In August 2008, the Bar Council forum on conversions was also prematurely stopped when protesters from across the political divide entered the hall and disrupted proceedings.
In September 2009, thugs took over a Selangor government public dialogue to discuss the suitable relocation of a Hindu temple in Shah Alam. This followed the infamous cow-head protest by some Muslims after Friday prayers regarding the temple’s relocation. The cow-head demonstrators threatened bloodshed if the temple was relocated to their neighbourhood. Police stood by and did nothing and only charged 12 of the protesters later after much public outrage.
Why no action?
In all these examples, what is most stark for me is the lack of immediate or convincing action to delegitimise and reprimand these acts of violence and aggression.
In nearly all the examples, the police seemed incapable of protecting the rights of citizens who were under siege by mobsters.
In the meantime, the political parties did close to nothing to publicly chastise their members who were involved in such behaviour. PKR, for example, seems paralysed from taking any action against Zulkifli Noordin, who led the protests against the Bar Council forum. And Umno has yet to publicly chastise its youth wing from acting in threatening ways. But perhaps that’s because that’s the role the wing is expected to play.
Indeed, in the instance of the cow-head protesters, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein even welcomed them into his office and defended them.
And so, when judge Wan Adnan Muhamad declared on 22 Dec in the High Court that the court’s role was to “uphold justice”, it nearly brought tears to my eyes. Not because it had been 13 years of waiting for a wrong to be righted, but because for too long now, people who abuse power and act in threatening ways have not been taken to task.
What that says is that we are a nation that has a high tolerance for acts of aggression, abuse and violence. We have institutions that are not capable of holding accountable those who threaten the peace. Indeed, we have political leadership that is more interested in defending violent tendencies and bigoted views than in upholding democratic rights.
And it is because this is not the kind of Malaysia I want for myself and for others that it was important for me to be part of a lawsuit against the police and the government.
Demonstration in 1999 against the occupation of East Timor (Pic by Chris Johnson / Wiki commons)
Our Apcet II t-shirts were emblazoned with the words “Free East Timor”. In 2002, “free” stopped being a verb and became an adjective that described East Timor’s independence after prolonged domestic struggle and international pressure. I have no doubts that Apcet II contributed to that international pressure, even if it resulted in the unnecessary arrests of participants.
East Timor is free from an oppressive occupation. But what can we say about Malaysia? Increasingly, aggressive mob behaviour and riot-threatening groups are the rule of the game. No less because the political culture and governing institutions encourage such behaviour either directly or when they fail to take action to reprimand such behaviour. How free, then, is Malaysia from an oppressive rule?
Jacqueline Ann Surin is not counting on any cash award from the High Court decision pending a potential government appeal. She believes that the Malaysian courts are just as capable of overturning justice as they are of upholding it.
Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns