Peaceful Assembly Bill sounds like a “TV game show”

By Tan Jo Hann, President of Permas

The government’s proposed “Peaceful Assembly Bill 2011” is supposed to give more free space for the freedom of expression and assembly. But instead it is proving to be more of an eye-wash and has the characteristics of a “TV game show” where the player is always enticed with wonderful cash rewards or grand prizes but has to perform a series of tests and tricks in order to get the rewards.

Similarly, the proposed Act on one hand offers the “grand prize” of “freedom of assembly”, but on the other hand imposing numerous conditions & criteria to be fulfilled in order for the people to hold a peaceful gathering.

The logic and framework of the proposed Act belittles our basic right to freedom of assembly and expression as guaranteed under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

In the past and until now a public gathering permit has to be obtain through application to the police as stipulated under the Police Act 1967.

But now the proposed act will actually give the police more arbitrary powers to act as court and jury to decide on matters ranging from the “permitted venues” of the gathering to deciding whether the content of the gathering is deemed “sensitive” or “disturbing public tranquillity”.

In short it gives the police more powers than the tight sweeping powers that they already possess to curb the basic right of the public to hold and participate in peaceful gatherings and demonstrations.

Ironically, in many of the recorded and documented cases of peaceful public demonstrations, it was the police who had often executed a heavy hand in carrying out their task.

A case in point is the recent BERSIH 2.0 peaceful march which ended up with bloodied heads and even the death of an elderly demonstrator. It also saw the police arresting more than 1,000 peaceful protestors.

Public gatherings, peaceful assemblies and marches are part and parcel of a healthy democracy. Malaysia has always claimed to be a nation with a progressive multi-religious and multicultural society.

It also prides itself to be a leading developing nation which has embraced an Asian styled
Democracy and not aping the western model.

But if this model of so-called “Malaysian Democracy” does not respect the very basic right of its citizens to voice opinions publicly through peaceful public gathering, then something is really wrong with our nation and its leaders.

In a Democratic nation, leaders are supposed to hear the voices of its people. But when dissent and peaceful gatherings are silenced, controlled and crushed, then we are dangerously on the road to dictatorship.

Perhaps the right thing to do is to set up a task force consisting of different sectors especially the civil society organisations, resident associations, law makers and different enforcement agencies to explore and study the different aspects of peaceful gatherings, demonstrations and marches.

This way the citizens are part and parcel in the process to formulate an Act representing one of the basic universal principles of human rights which is actually embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Article 20 (1) states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”

The Malaysian government has to stop playing political games with the rakyat. Stop making pronouncements for the sake of political gains but seriously look into how their basic human rights can be protected and upheld.