We unite, therefore we protest

Lawyers don’t march every day. But if they march, then something must be very wrong. That was what the then-chairman of the Bar Council Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan said during the “Walk for Justice” by the lawyers in 2007. What Ambiga said was right. Unfortunately after seven years, lawyers once again have no option but to march again. Why are people prepared to protest or march for a cause? It is a question that has intrigued not only the academic community but also the general public. The heart of every protest originates from grievances. It could be feelings of injustice, inequality or relative deprivation. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly”. Certainly this time around, amidst the “crazy” numbers of arrests made under the Sedition Act in this year alone, would you not want to protest?

Though the civil society groups and the Bar Council have launched various campaigns against the usage of the Sedition Act, a peaceful march at this juncture is essential and timely. I believe that a peaceful protest is an effective method to make our voices heard. This is not the first time that the Bar decided to organise a march. In 2007, the “Walk for Justice” was held where 2,000 lawyers marched to the Prime Minister’s Department in Putrajaya demanding that a royal commission of inquiry be established to probe into the state of the judiciary and the memorandum on the establishment of judicial appointments and promotion commission. Back then, the march succeeded in pressuring the then-prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi into establishing a royal commission of inquiry into the infamous V.K. Lingam phone conversation on the appointment of judges. But then again, some might be sceptical and wonder: protests are springing up everywhere, but are they actually effective? Well, nonviolent resistance like peaceful protests may have strategic advantages. In the past, we witnessed many events showing that whenever the authorities overreact against a peaceful protest, it could backfire.

Having said that, to some extent a peaceful protest could mobilise the population to speak up against injustice – for me, I see it as a way to defend our beloved country. In addition, it certainly shows strength in belief. The fact that a group of people feel compelled to unite for a common cause and to express their opinions in public suggests a certain strength in ideology. What is ever more important is to gain that critical mass of people who are going to say that they don’t want to support the Sedition Act any longer. Lawyers opt to march when they see injustice. In Pakistan for example, the Lawyers’ Movement, also known as the Movement for the Restoration of Judiciary, was initiated by the lawyers of Pakistan in response to the former president Pervez Musharraf’s actions in 2007 when he unconstitutionally suspended the chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

In June 2014, a record number of lawyers took to the streets in Hong Kong to protest against Beijing’s white paper that they say jeopardises judicial independence. It was not the first time the Hong Kong lawyers had marched to voice their frustrations. The march was in fact the third since the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. The first march was in 1999, when the lawyers protested an interpretation from Beijing overturning a decision by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal. The second march was in 2005 against the basic law interpretation that limited the judiciary’s ability to arbitrate in their chief executive election. Hence, protest is and will remain for many years a main form of action for a majority of people.

Henry David Thoreau, an American philosopher, once said, “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty. The obedient must be slaves.” No one will forget the march by Martin Luther King in 1965, or the mass protest against the Vietnam War in 1970. Similarly, Malaysians will not forget the Baling protest in 1974, or the Reformasi protest in 1998, or the Bersih rallies in 2007, 2011 and 2012. Protests are momentous, and most importantly, they do not need to be violent. We just need to unite and impress enough people in fighting for the common cause. If we, the citizens, don’t do anything when we see something going wrong, then who will?

This article appeared in The Malaysian Insider on 22 September 2014.

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