“Malaysian lawmakers approved a ban on street protests” today, AP reports, “after opposition legislators boycotted the vote and activists criticized the ban as repressive and a threat to freedom of assembly”:
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition says the Peaceful Assembly Act is intended to strike a balance between public order and the right to peaceful assembly. The act passed easily in Parliament’s lower house after the boycott, and the law is expected to be enforced after Parliament’s upper house, also dominated by the National Front coalition, approves it as early as next month.
But civil society and human rights groups complain that the law is designed to further restrict the right to peaceful protest ahead of next year’s anticipated general election. The act violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, activists contend, which protects the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association (article 20).
Lawyers today took to the streets today (above) to protest the measure which violated the “constitutionally guaranteed right” to have an “assembly in motion,” said Lim Chee Wee, president of the Malaysian Bar Council, which organized the march.
“The Malaysian Bar Council is very disappointed that the government is rushing with unholy haste this piece of legislation without seeking adequate feedback from relevant stakeholders,” he said.
The Peaceful Assembly Act, which must also be passed by the parliament’s upper house, would be “more Draconian” than laws in Zimbabwe or Myanmar, said opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
The measure effectively bans street protests, broadly defined as “open-air assembly which begins with a meeting at a specified place and consists of walking in a mass march or rally for the purpose of objecting to or advancing a particular cause or causes.” Transgressors face a fine of up to 20,000 Malaysian ringgit (US$6,000).
Demonstrations will be restricted to enclosed venues, such as stadiums, and protest organizers must secure police permission 10 days in advance. But the police enjoy wide discretionary powers to restrict public assemblies.
Organizers of last July’s Bersih 2.0 demonstration in support of electoral reform were denied permits to assemble, either in the street or in a stadium. Police assaulted demonstrators, fired tear gas canisters into the peaceful crowd, and arrested at least 1,667 protesters when Bersih – the Coalition for Clean Elections – defied the de facto ban.
Three factors are prompting the coalition government to make a “dash to the polls,” according to The Economist:
The first is that Mr Najib, who took over UMNO and the prime ministership after the BN’s unprecedentedly poor showing in 2008, still had an approval rating of 59% in a recent survey. ….. Second, economic storm clouds are gathering in the West. Malaysia’s economy is still growing at over 4% a year, but is vulnerable to a downturn in external demand.
Third, the opposition coalition is in some disarray. Its figurehead, Anwar Ibrahim, is on trial for sodomy, illegal in Malaysia, and many expect him to go back to jail soon, as he did (for the same alleged offence) in 1998. He is a divisive figure. But without him, there is no obvious opposition candidate for prime minister.
Malaysia’s current political malaise “stems from the congruence of two seemingly conflicting trends,” it suggests: on the plus side, competitive pluralism in place of “UMNO-dominated quasi-democracy”; but “too many” politicians are playing the dangerous game of accentuating and exploiting ethnic and religious divisions for political advantage.