THE 1 Aug 2009 anti-Internal Security Act (ISA) street rally attracted big crowds scattered around the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The throng of people easily numbered 20,000 but could have been more. Demonstrators sported headbands, T-shirts and banners that decried the draconian law. They called for the Act, which allows for indefinite state detention without trial, to be repealed. Artists built a monstrous effigy to drive the point home.
Most also brought wet towels and salt — household remedies for tear gas. Perhaps due to the practice they’ve had with large-scale street protests in the last three years, the authorities’ reaction was strong and methodical.
On 31 July, a day before the planned demonstration, roadblocks went up on major routes into the city, slowing traffic and drumming up public sentiment against the Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI)-organised rally. As crowds massed ahead of the march towards the palace, police officers checked bags and handcuffed anyone found harbouring anti-ISA material. The Legal Aid Centre’s Puspawati Rosman was arrested, apparently for distributing leaflets detailing citizens’ rights with regards to police arrests.
As the march got underway, riot police and the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) halted crowds by strategic cordons and zealous use of the water cannon. Public transit was diverted; the Masjid Jamek STAR-LRT station, for example, was closed due to “technical problems”.
The day before the rally, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was quoted as asking, “Why demonstrate?
“Why have a demonstration when we are in the process of discussions and getting feedback from the people?” he said.
The response to that would be: “Why can’t citizens demonstrate peacefully in a democracy?” Especially since the government’s plan, thus far, to review the ISA does not include removing the state’s absolute powers in detaining people without trial, a power that has been repeatedly abused by the Barisan Nasional leadership.
The day after the rally, Najib was quoted as saying that street demonstrations that lead to rioting “will not be tolerated”.
“We are willing to even provide them with proper venues such as stadiums where they can gather and voice their unhappiness … They can go and gather and shout all they want even until the wee hours of the morning. What we cannot tolerate is when they go to the streets and cause havoc and discomfort to the public,” Najib said.
It is difficult to see how the 1 Aug march was a riot. There was certainly terrible traffic congestion caused by police roadblocks, and pandemonium — the kind inevitably produced by the authorities firing nerve gas canisters into crowds.
And while demonstrating is illegal by definition because of the laws of the land, what exactly is the crime committed against another person or the state when citizens chose to march peacefully down a public street to voice an opinion?
The Nut Graph remembers a street rally organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) in September 2008, also against the ISA. While there was also police presence at the evening march, riot gear did not materialise. Things, as a result, remained peaceful, even though traffic was stalled for a couple of hours on some streets.
How about the Majlis Pemuafakatan Ummah (Pewaris) march on 23 Nov 2008, which only attracted police action when demonstrators clearly mobbed a woman expressing anti-ISA sentiments? Or demonstrations about other issues, such as the rowdy August 2008 protest against a Bar Council forum about religious conversion? Neither caused authorities to come out with tear gas and water cannons. It is obvious that there are some double standards at play.
And while peaceful street demonstrations can be an inconvenience to daily schedules and normal economic activity, they are part of the vocabulary of great civil liberties and democratic movements throughout history. Take the struggle of the US’s African-American community, or the recent reformist rallies following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s controversial re-election as Iranian president.
And, despite former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad‘s assertion that such protests are “not our culture”, we need only look to Umno’s history, and the mass protests the party led against the Malayan Union, for proof that street demonstrations have been part of the Malaysian narrative from its very beginning.
What do you think, dear readers? Is going down to the streets peacefully a public threat, or is it an expression of liberty and solidarity? Are the authorities maintaining order, or unconscionably cracking down on Malaysian citizens to protect vested political interest, instead of focusing their resources on fighting rising crime?
Here are some of our thoughts:
Right to dissent is a human right.
Tanpa polis, pasti tak ada kecoh.
What crime is committed, against whom?
It’s not impossible to demonstrate peacefully.
Arrest civil protesters, ignore real criminals.
Freedom of expression: fundamental in democracy.
Holy water cannons to exorcise demons-trators.
“Bang!” “Bang!” “Bang!” “Oh, no! Run!”
“Have some salt. You’ll feel better.”
The Nut Graph packs a towel.
Inspired by Ernest Hemingway‘s genius, the Six Words On… section challenges readers to give us their comments about a current issue, contemporary personality or significant event in just six words. The idea is to get readers engaged in an issue that The Nut Graph identifies, while having fun and being creatively disciplined.