Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-4-1349 7828

Mar 2008 # 4

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Back to Editorials 2008

Story and Audio from Kuala Lumpur, 9th Dec 2007

Police Arrest Lawyers, Human Rights Day Rally

(for story and photos go here)


It seems to me that wherever you go there are forces at work that seek to prevent the expression of basic human rights.

On December 10th, 1948, the United Nations adopted the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights". The member states, then and now, were expected to accept the basic tenets of the document that was supposed to enshrine, in so called 'democracies', some basic criteria against which they could be measured in their legal frameworks to protect and advance basic human rights.

One paragraph in the preamble stands out for me. It reads, in part "... human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people ..." The "common people".

Who are these common people? Are not we all common in some way? Don't we all eat through similarly formed mouths and breath though nostrils in noses on the front of our faces? Don't we all feel pain and desire and joy and anxiety? Don't we all shit out the same orifice and walk on similarly shaped feet? Aren't we all, therefore, common?

It would seem not. 

I spent International Human Rights Day, 2007, in Kuala Lumpur. On the 9th December I was invited to attend a march organised by a group of lawyers who are members of the Malaysian Bar Association. The Bar Association had originally organised the march but after coming under pressure from the government and police had pulled out.

Regardless of the Bar Association's decision a small group of human rights lawyers, under the banner of “Lawyers for Freedom of Assembly” decided to proceed with the march even though, without the necessary permits, it would be deemed "illegal" under Malaysian law.

As we know, here in Australia, we are free to roam the streets at will. However, while we have no laws requiring permits to hold peaceful rallies or marches, we still need to obtain other permissions and even seek the co-operation of the police if we are to walk a large group through the centre of our towns and cities.

While there are differences under law, Australians and Malaysians share common hopes, dreams and aspirations, even those of peaceful assembly. Many of these aspirations are subject to the imposition of laws that hinder individuals or collectives from obtaining them.

For instance, in November 2007 there were two rallies organised by a coalition of human rights and other civil society organisations in Kuala Lumpur. 

The first of these, on November 10th, organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Berish), was forcibly dispersed by the police who used tear gas, water cannon and shear thuggery to intimidate the people. The estimated 50,000 who turned up for the rally were gathering peacefully as allowed under the Malaysian constitution. The demand of the rally for the introduction of electoral reforms was rejected by the Malaysian government who sent in the police and troops instead.

The second rally, on the 25th November, was organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF), representing ethnic Indians, and saw up to 30,000 people take to the streets. This rally was to protest the discrimination that Indians are subject too, particularly those in rural areas or who are marginalised in low paying jobs.

What was common to both these rallies was the invocation of the Internal Security Act to detain, without charge, those arrested. Under another law called the "Emergency Ordinance (Public Order and Prevention of Crime)" act and the ISA, many of those arrested during the rallies are being held not only without charge but also 'incommunicado'.

Human Rights Watch noted in their report on human rights abuses in Malaysia during 2006, that the use of these laws had increased since September 11, 2001. Although the laws were justified by politicians as a protection from 'known terrorist groups', their use was becoming more widespread and most of those being detained under them were being held simply because they opposed one government policy or another.

The Human Rights Watch reports that "In 2006 Prime Minister Badawi joined the near universal call to close the US detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and also urged that the two Malaysian detainees transferred from CIA secret facilities to Guantánamo be given a fair trial. But the prime minister failed to afford similar rights to detainees held under the ISA or the Emergency Ordinance". Double standards, as we see, abound.

On the morning of the 9th December I caught a train to Central Station and was picked up by some friends. We parked in a car park near the starting point of the rally at about 7:30am and walked up the street to where we could see the police and a group of people milling about.

The first sound that I thought was out of place and that I can recall hearing that morning was that of a helicopter.

The deployment of this type of asset (notice the bureaucratese) is now commonplace. This 'elevated surveillance platform' allows the police to see what is going on. We've all seen those police shows where we see the bad guys, who having stole the car, speed down the quiet suburban street and end up crashing it in a back lane. They sprint from the wreck and we see the footage from the chopper and how it is used to track the bad guys until they are overpowered and arrested. In the modern world everyone who attends a peaceful demonstration is treated as a suspect who needs to be detained. 

As we rounded the corner I saw about 60 - 80 people including a number of children. What was interesting was that most of the children were accompanied only by their mothers. They and their mums wore scarves with ISA in a crossed out circle on them. I asked who this group was and what they represented. It turns out that most of the women had husbands who were arrested and who were detained under either the ISA or other trumped up charges. 

I spoke with students and activists, lawyers and others. All were concerned that modern Malaysia was offering nothing more or new. The same old prejudices were still ruling policy. Corruption was not decreasing only being driven underground. The constitution was being trampled (and it seems from those I spoke to that Malaysians hold their constitution in just as high a regard as Americans hold theirs) and the ways in which government were attempting to control the flow of public information were increasing despite their claims otherwise. 

Accompanying the 60 - 80 'walkers' (they cant 'march' as its against the law unless they have a permit) were a huge number of media people and an even greater number of police - some estimate five police for each walker. While some of the journalists were quite clearly identified by their jacket logos, most of were not. I have no idea what media organisation were represented or how many of the supposed journalists were actually employees of the state. 

After being briefed by the organisers, the group headed off. There were a few chants but most didn't last long - I guess there just wasn't the numbers to maintain them. The 'walk' began at a leisurely pace and the walkers held their banners and flags quite proudly. The police lined the streets and had deployed a 'vehicular surveillance platform' (a van with a camera on it) to monitor the march. 

I thought it was quite quaint that the van was being used. It had a telescopic boom on it that, when raised, would allow the camera to be suspended some way above the ground. While not anywhere near the birds eye view of the chopper, I imagine it would give a reasonable overview of proceedings. 

The police who lined the streets were rather subdued. They stuck to their side of the road and we stuck to ours. However, things don't always work out the way you expect. 

I had just finished talking with a Malaysian lady called Nora about her involvement in the walk when I noticed the crowd starting to run around a corner (I think this was near the Colosseum). By the time I got to where the main commotion was, there was a small group of lawyers and police surrounded by a larger group of journalists

The lawyers were arguing with the police that they had permission to march to the Bar Council office and that they would be there within minutes if allowed to continue. The police held to their line that the walkers must disperse now or be arrested. The lawyers argued that nothing illegal under the constitution had taken place so why were they threatened with arrest? The police said the crowd must disperse or they would be arrested. 

After some time of argy bargy the lawyers told the crowd that the police had ordered them to disperse. They said that they didn’t want anyone to get arrested and that they were going to obey the order. For a very short moment this seemed to satisfy the top policeman at the scene. 

Immediately after this announcement was made the police grabbed the arms of the lawyers and began to march them off. The lawyers demanded to know why they were being duck walked. The police didn’t respond and the lawyers demanded that they either be arrested and their charge announced in public or the police to stop manhandling them. They repeated that demand several times. 

A police van had been driven up, the side door was flung open and the three lawyers half climbed and half pushed inside, protesting that they wanted to know what charges they faced. The door was slammed and the van sped off. As it transpired the lawyers and others arrested  were charged in court the following day with taking part in an 'illegal assembly' and failing to disperse. The total number arrested and charged on the 9th was about 20 including a number of people who were arrested in connection with the November rallies.

The crowd began to thin out somewhat but a vocal minority remained. A few of the older people suggested that it would be better for us to move off. However, this was ignored and another three or four arrests took place, including Nora, the woman I had spoken with earlier. 

Even though there had been arrests the walkers remained confident and calm in the presence of overwhelming numbers of police as they moved off towards the Bar Council offices. By the time we arrived there quite a large police contingent had assembled. Again, they generally kept their distance.

The few remain banners were hoisted and the remainder of the walkers moved off to the end of the walk at the Bar Council Building. As I understand at least one of the rally organisers was arrested for putting up a banner outside the Bar Council premises.

The Bar Council, while cancelling their walk, had moved ahead with organising a day long conference inside their headquarters. These activities were promoted as the "Festival of Rights: "As I Believe" Expression Through Art, Music, Culture". The activities included speeches, music, drama, a children's colouring competition and dance performances while outside a 'street' festival was held in the adjoining car park which they leased for the day. The largest area in the car park was taken up by the Falun Gong who, I was to find out, had brought their own media unit with them. I know this because they asked to interview me, which I did.

The Falun Gong's display included a rather gory representation their claims of organ stealing by Chinese government doctors, various torture techniques claimed to be used against them and a group who were doing their meditative moves.

Alongside the FG display were a number of activist and NGO groups. What I found interesting was that some of the items on sale (T-shirts, books, CDs and DVDs) would be considered 'against the interest of the state'. There were books, CDs and DVDs that reported on the human rights abuses in Malaysia, others discussed or demonstrated environmental vandalism condoned by the state and others were tracts promoting particular world views.

So, it seems, you are not allowed to publicly demonstrate your anger at the Malaysian government's actions but are (or perhaps may be) allowed to fulminate in the privacy of your own home.

While the street festival continued inside the Bar Council headquarters the conference got under way. Just prior to the conference commencing I spoke with the President of the Bar Council, Ambiga Sreenevasan and joined a press conference by Johnson Chong, a lawyer involved in the organisation of the walk.

The opening address was delivered by the President, Ambiga Sreenevasan. This was followed by a number of responses by representatives of the various NGOs who were attending.

At the end of the first session, the conference participants were asked to move to the front of the hall and read out, in its entirely, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. When they had arrived participants had received a sheet of paper with the declaration printed on it. It was written in English on one side and Malay on the other. The participants were encouraged to read the declaration in the language they felt most comfortable with.

Ethnic Indians joined marginalised Malays who in turn stood shoulder to shoulder with lawyers, doctors, health professionals and others in reading out the declaration. With a preamble and 30 articles, the reading took some time. Nonetheless, the participants read through it from start to finish - except for the police officials who chose to absent themselves by then.

As I walked away after the events, I heard, still hovering overhead, the sounds of a police chopper. For some reason, it's presence didn't seem to offer immediate hope of the recognition of basic human rights by the Malaysian government.

At the end of the day, I once more reflected on the simple fact that regardless of where I travel and the people I meet, all of us want very similar things. As article three of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person." After all, if we cant have this there is little point in having anything. 

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