Protesters are not criminals

May Day last Friday witnessed thousands of Malaysians taking to the streets to demand that the goods and services tax (GST) be abolished. More than two dozen protesters, including activists and opposition politicians, were arrested. Similar to the March 7 #KitaLawan rally, the arrests only started after the rally. Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, former Bersih 2.0 co-chair and former president of Malaysian Bar, was among those arrested. Also arrested were Seremban member of parliament (MP) Anthony Loke, Kuala Krai MP Dr Hatta Ramli, Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli, Batu MP Tian Chua, Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad, Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) secretary-general S. Arutchelvan and activist Hishamuddin Rais. Tian Chua was arrested after speaking at a Permatang Pauh by-election ceramah and reportedly treated roughly by the police.

What is questionable is the need to arrest and criminalise organisers of the May Day rally. For instance, the use of Section 143 of the Penal Code for unlawful assembly signals police harassment against citizens who voiced out against government policies. On the day of rally itself, the Royal Malaysian Police’s (PDRM) Facebook page under the title of, “Demo #Bantah GST: Inikah yang ingin ditonjolkan?” (#BantahGST demo: Is this what was intended to be portrayed?) highlighted how some participants of the rally had committed vandalism, set off smoke bombs and brought children along. Yet, one has to wonder if the arrests of activists and opposition politicians were politically driven. Many a time, there has been speculation, whenever there is any form of disruption in rallies, that it could be due to the presence of provocateurs.

The use of infiltration and disruption in protests is not new. There have been examples of provocateurs being used in various protests around the world. During the 2009 G20 protests in London, for instance, there were allegations of suspicious protesters who were allowed to leave police cordons after throwing bottles at police. Having said that, the police, in carrying out their duties, ought to respect the rule of law and to preserve the constitutional right to liberty of all Malaysians. One also has to wonder when these deplorable practices of unjustified detention and remand of activists and opposition politicians will stop.

The policing of political protests is most likely one of the most controversial roles of the police. It is an uneasy balance between the defence of state power through laws and regulations, and a recognition of the right to assemble. How the government and the police use power to repress the activists and opposition has related effects on the outcome of the protest. Moreover, the police strategies reflect the characteristic of the state itself. What’s important is a police force that is more facilitative of protest. Of particular interest is the extent to which the policing of protest conflicts with upholding human rights. The policing of protest involves a great deal of debate on human rights and freedoms. Most obvious are the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, which are both recognised as fundamental by the Federal Constitution. Peaceful protests should not be treated as a threat and it is crucial to adopt a “demonstrationfriendly” protest-policing approach. Article 24 of the Asean Human Rights Declaration states that, “Every person has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly”. Indeed, it is time for Malaysia, as this year’s chair, to walk the talk.

This article appeared in The Malaysian Insider on 4 May 2015.

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