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Malaysian group plans park picnic to protest against Bill Print E-mail
Friday, 16 December 2011

by Carolyn Hong
The Straits Times

Up to 400 Malaysians plan to picnic in the park below the Petronas Twin Towers in the heart of the city tomorrow.

Last week, the group went shopping and took photos by the Christmas tree in the Suria KLCC mall. The week before, they sat in the park to listen to poetry read by national laureate A. Samad Said.

This is no ordinary gathering. They come every week to prove a point: that Malaysians who meet in groups pose no danger or inconvenience. It is their way of protesting against the Peaceful Assembly Bill recently passed by Parliament.

The Bill was Prime Minister Najib Razak's attempt to relax existing laws but stirred outrage from activists who say that it is even more restrictive.

Ms Vienna Looi, 21, a law student who coordinated last week's Christmas tree outing, said the gatherings aim to dispel notions that protests are violent and scary. "Protests are routinely allowed in mature democracies," she said.

The outings are among dozens of small protests held in recent months, as they become a popular way for Malaysians to express their opinions on hot issues.

On Wednesday, 15 students were arrested for standing silently at the KL Sentral station with placards demanding political freedom for university students and academic staff. The historic Dataran Merdeka is "occupied" every weekend by Malaysians to discuss issues of public concern. Lawyers recently marched to protest against the Peaceful Assembly Bill.

Candlelight vigils organised last week highlighted the need for electoral reforms. People held a street party recently to demand historic buildings be saved from demolition for a new mass rail transit system. A couple of months ago, a carnival was held to protest against the construction of the Lynas rare earth plant.

This weekend alone will see two or three such protests, including the picnic at KLCC. Most of these events draw fewer than 100 people, who disperse quickly.

Political analyst Wong Chin Huat from Monash University Malaysia called them a psychological breakthrough for Malaysians. "They have long been given to believe that protests mean chaos and violence, but people now see that they don't need to be so," he said, having participated in these protests himself.

Their peaceful nature and the low risks involved, he said, had encouraged more groups to come forward to hold protests.

The authorities have not clamped down on them, but they have not turned a blind eye either. Police sometimes disperse these gatherings and make arrests.

The KLCC mall has threatened to obtain an injunction to stop protesters but did not take action when the group gathered on Saturday.

Senior lawyer Roger Tan wrote in a newspaper column on Sunday that such acts of civil disobedience appear to be the "in thing" now. "It is becoming a popular tactical weapon used by them to justify their violation of laws which, in their view, are 'unjust'," he said.

But he argued civil disobedience is acceptable only under the most exceptional circumstances, and if absolutely necessary in the interests of justice and nation. "Failure to recognise this is itself a threat to the rule of law upon which every modern society is founded, and this can transform into a perfect recipe for anarchy and tyranny," he said.

But organisers argue they have a right to peaceful assembly. Dr Wong said political activities are no different from other activities. "Most of us already do things in groups," he said. "Why does it then become an issue when we gather to discuss our community?"

Associate Professor Azmi Sharom, from Universiti Malaya's law faculty, agreed that protests which do not advocate violence should not be stopped, and said these small protests are not likely to stop.

He said: "People have come to realise how important their freedoms are."


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