It seems to
me that wherever you go there are forces at work that seek to
prevent the expression of basic human rights.
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.
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".
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
sound that I thought was out of place and that I can recall
hearing that morning was that of a
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.
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
the women had husbands who were arrested and who were
detained under either the ISA or other trumped up charges.
I spoke with
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
Ambiga Sreenevasan and
joined a press conference by
Johnson Chong, a lawyer
involved in the organisation of the walk.
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
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.
walked away after the events, I heard, still hovering overhead,
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
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.