Malaysian lawmakers have approved a new law banning street demonstrations and restricting assemblies - amid protests against the act outside parliament. The act still needs to be approved by the country's upper house, but is expected to pass next month.
Critics say the new Peaceful Assembly Act is repressive and a threat to Malaysia's constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly. Ahead of the vote, hundreds of lawyers and activists marched towards parliament in protest of the move.
Opposition Lawmakers Walk Out
Opposition party members, who had called for the legislation to be withdrawn, walked out of parliament before the vote on Tuesday. They refused to participate because only three opposition members had been permitted to speak on the issue. The opposition claims the government has rushed the bill through without enough public consultation.
The act passed easily in the lower house of parliament after the boycott, and the law is expected to be enforced after the parliament's upper house approves it early as next month. Both houses are dominated by Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition.
The new legislation comes after Mr. Najib pledged in September to embark on a series of reforms. Civil rights groups and opposition parties say Mr. Najib has failed to deliver on his promise to make Malaysia a “modern, progressive nation” and that the Peaceful Assembly Act is more repressive than existing laws.
The outcry over the Assembly Act has largely overshadowed the government’s announcement last week that it would repeal three emergency laws that allowed detention without trial and that it would permit students older than 21 to join political parties.
Mr. Najib’s pledge to introduce a series of reforms came after the government was condemned for its handling of the July Bersih 2.0 protests. Kuala Lumpur police briefly arrested hundreds of protesters and fired tear gas at more than 20,000 people, who were demanding greater electoral transparency ahead of next year's expected polls.
Lawyers and Activists March in Protest
On Tuesday, hundreds of Malaysian lawyers and rights activists staged a rare protest march demanding that the government abandon plans for the new law, which bans such street demonstrations.
At least 500 representatives from Malaysia's Bar Council and rights groups marched to Malaysia's parliament, chanting "Bebas berhimpun" ("Free assembly").
According to Malaysia's New Straits Times, the crowd was closer to 1000.
Police stopped most of them from entering the complex, but 10 members of the Malaysian Bar Council were allowed to enter.
Critics of the act have denounced it as a violation of the Malaysian constitution's protection of free speech, and a sign that Najib was breaking his pledge to bolster civil liberties. They have accused the government of rushing to enact the law. The act was announced only last week, without proper public consultation.
"We hope the government will listen to the voice of the people," said Malaysian Bar Council President Lim Chee Wee. He was allowed to enter the parliament complex, and handed copies of a draft alternative bill to V.K. Liew, a deputy cabinet minister, and to Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader. He was cheered when he returned outside to the crowd of waiting lawyers.
Mr. Lim noted that the Malaysian constitution guarantees the right to have an "assembly in motion".
"Assemblies in motion provide the demonstrators with a wider audience and greater visibility, in order for others to see and hear the cause or grievance giving rise to the gathering," Mr. Lim said.
“We must continue to knock on the doors of parliament to make sure this bill doesn’t enter the statute books,” he added.
The law "infringes on the rights of the people and violates the constitution," said Wong Chin Huat of the group Bersih 2.0, whose rally was broken up in July. He told AFP that voters may abandon the government in the next election.
But Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, condemned the Bar Council for staging the street protest. "They are lawyers but they did not behave that way. I am a lawyer, too, and I am ashamed of how they behaved," he said.
Mr. Nazri added that although it was the fundamental right of citizens to assemble, the freedom could not be absolute.
Details of the Peaceful Assembly Act
Under existing law, Malaysians must apply for a police permit for gatherings of more than five people. The new Peaceful Assembly Act does not require people to obtain a permit, but organizers must notify the authorities in advance unless they are meeting in "designated places". But critics say the criteria for such locations are not clearly specified in the bill.
Under the new act, street demonstrations are also banned, and static assemblies will not be allowed within 50 meters of certain locations, such as petrol stations, hospitals, public transport terminals, schools and places of worship.
No one under the age of 21 will be permitted to organise a protest. Children under 15 and non-citizens will be barred from attending rallies. Demonstrators who break the law may be fined 20,000 ringgit (US$6,280, SG$8160).
Organizers may be required to give 10-day advance notification to police, who will determine whether the date and venue are allowed. The police will be able to impose conditions on the scheduling and location of the assembly. The original act listed a 30-day window for notification, but this was shorted slightly in response to complaints.
However critics of the act, including international rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch maintain the act would grant police too much power over the timing, duration, and location of gatherings.
On Tuesday, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told reporters at Parliament that he believed the law would be "more Draconian" than laws in Zimbabwe or Myanmar. "We cannot accept the bill as it stands," he said.
Report: Malaysia Lawmakers Pass Street-Rally Ban [Wall Street Journal, 29 Nov 2011]
Report: Bill Limiting Street Protests Moves Ahead in Malaysia [New York Times, 29 Nov 2011]
Report: Assembly bill okayed [New Straits Times, 30 Nov 2011]
Report: Malaysians protest ban on protests [Bangkok Post, 29 Nov 2011]
Report: Malaysia Lawyers Protest Rally Ban Plan [TIME (AP), 29 Nov 2011]
PM Najib Defends Act
Earlier in the week, Malaysia's Prime Minister hit back at critics of the act, dismissing allegations that the bill was more draconian than previous laws.
"The important thing is that the new act guarantees the right of the citizen to assemble in a peaceful manner," Mr. Najib said at a press conference. "It is a totally baseless claim that our laws are more draconian than Myanmar's and all kinds of rubbish they're saying. These people are out to confuse the public."
Report: Peaceful Assembly Bill Not 'Draconian', Guarantees Right Of Citizens - Najib[Bernama, 28 Nov 2011]