The government’s paranoia over any public protest or manifestation of dissent is beyond reason and logic;it is apparently a symptom of insecurity, reports Angeline Loh after attending a candlelight vigil in Penang recently.
A small crowd of NGO activists huddled in the shelter of a shop front at the junction of Lebuh Campbell leading to Jalan Penang at about 8.50pm on 13 December 2007. It was raining, but that did not deter the handful of human rights supporters. Even police warnings had done nothing to dampen their determination to carry the light for human rights in united comradeship.
Yet, there was a solemnity in the atmosphere, as they braced themselves to hold a candlelight vigil in support of those who had been arrested in Kuala Lumpur in November 2007 and during the 9 December 2007 International Human Rights Day celebrations. They had been detained for claiming and exercising their right to free assembly and free expression.
We were not the only ones on the pavements. Police too had turned up in numbers, with Special Branch agents and press photographers armed with juggernaut cameras. Thankfully, there appeared to be no riot squads around.
There was a build up of traffic, intermittently caused by the traffic lights and the road works on Jalan Penang – not by the small group standing on the corner with their banner reading, “The Freedom to Assemble Peacefully is a Human Right. Stop the Arrests of Peaceful Protestors Now.”
As a few more vigil participants turned up and a few passersby and onlookers gathered out of curiosity, pinpoints of candlelight lit up the narrow shop front. The police appeared to be tolerating this gathering with some restraint.
Lau Shu Shi, Suaram’s Penang coordinator, read out a short speech:
“We are gathered here this evening to peacefully show our solidarity with all those arrested at the Bersih, Hindraf and Human Rights Day marches in Kuala Lumpur. Freedom to assemble is a basic human right, recognised in our Federal Constitution as well as in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The recent crackdown and government-coordinated media campaign against those exercising this right is a denial of a basic freedom for all Malaysians. We call on the Malaysian government to work towards safeguarding the freedom of assembly and all other basic freedoms for all Malaysians, and (to) unconditionally release those who are still arrested.”
(Source: “Light for Justice” pamphlet distributed at the Vigil)
Shu Shi would have gone on to repeat the message in Bahasa Malaysia and Mandarin had she not been stopped by a police officer standing nearby. The police would not permit speeches. Nonetheless, NGO activists distributed copies of the speech to the public who had gathered.
With the speeches cut short, representatives and supporters from Suaram Penang, Aliran, Amnesty International, WCC, the Phoenix Group for Chinese Education, and Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force), other friends and concerned members of the public burst out singing “We shall Overcome”:
“We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome one day,
Deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome one day…”
The strains of this song apparently worried the police, with the OCPD himself driving up in his patrol car to issue a warning to the small crowd of about 150 to disperse or face arrest. This somewhat paranoid reaction by the police to a peaceful gathering was not unusual and certainly predictable. NGOs see paranoia in the authorities as characteristic and inherent in their nature, particularly when the authorities seem to be struggling to justify their actions.
Reluctantly, the assembly slowly dispersed for the sake of keeping the peace. Yet, the nearly 20-minute vigil was seen to be a success, as the one that took place in KL on 9 December, 2007, was only tolerated for 15 minutes, according to someone who was there.
There was no noise – apart from that of passing traffic, the OCPD’s voice through the megaphone, and the murmur of people’s voices. There was no slogan shouting, no violence. It started peacefully and ended peacefully.
The police in Penang, perhaps have become slightly more familiar with non-violent demonstrations than their counterparts in big-durian KL. As far as this writer can remember, the police have seen large labour demonstrations during the mid and late 1980s when foreign investors, particularly from the United States began to axe workforces in their foreign operations to slow the effects of economic depression in the US. The foreign plants doing primary manufacturing and assembly were first in line for the redundancy fire.
These were real protests led by trade union veterans of the labour movement. Penang was one of the major hubs of industrialisation and was known as “Silicon Island” at that time.
So what is a candlelight vigil compared to that? Nonetheless, while the police in Penang appeared to take the vigil as a matter of course, albeit pressured by HQ big-wigs to ensure things were kept to a minimum, the paranoia still remains.
A light for ISA detainees
Gerak Mansuhkan ISA (GMI), the “Abolish the ISA Movement” held its own candlelight vigil at Dataran Merdeka on 5 January 2008. It seemed an even more poignant affair, as family members of ISA detainees were present, including those of the Hindraf leaders recently detained under that law.
The police took a similarly negative stance and even tried to smear the GMI organisers by publicly making them out to be unreasonable. According to Malaysiakini’s report, “Dang Wangi OCPD ACP Zulkarnain Abdul Rahman claimed that GMI had “refused” to submit an application form for the gathering when told to do so…”(Malaysiakini, 5 January 2008).
Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh, chairperson of the GMI coalition, refuted this when speaking to the press, saying that documents had been submitted to the police on 26 December 2007, and a subsequent letter sent two days later. Zulkarnain had even acknowledged this letter but refused the permit on 2 January 2008. As grounds for his refusal, he cited national security considerations and claimed that GMI was not a registered organisation.
The candlelight vigil, nevertheless, went ahead after the GMI expressed its determination to proceed with it. They negotiated with the police to spare them just a few minutes for their vigil.
The 20- minute vigil was a peaceful and apparently a quiet one with the 200-strong crowd agreeing to disperse when police ‘threatened’ to move in. Syed Ibrahim, himself urged the crowd to disperse, concluding that the aim of the vigil had been achieved. His words reveal the attitude and mood in which the vigil was carried out, “We wanted it to be a peaceful gathering, despite the police restrictions. We didn’t want to be confrontational.”
Given the nature of the issue and the poignancy of the event – families of ISA detainees were present to peacefully oppose the existence of this oppressive and draconian law in support of their loved ones – it is not difficult to understand the deep and painful emotions of those who wanted to continue the vigil. It felt like a wake for the death of human rights.
V Raidu, the brother of V Ganabatirau, a detained Hindraf leader said, “ I’m not just supporting my brother but all ISA detainees. I know the pain the detainees’ families go through.”
One would have expected the police to, at least, respect the feelings of these people, having shown themselves to be somewhat reasonable and sensitive until then. Unfortunately, less humane and violent tendencies got the better of them.
The mourning was cut short by blasts from water cannon, drenching the peaceful ‘mourners’ as if they had been a brawling crowd. Authorities responded heavy-handedly to a peaceful gathering. The stragglers found themselves running down Jalan Ampang to dodge arrest. What would they be arrested for?
Would they be arrested for being slow to comply with an unreasonable order? Would it matter if they stood on the sidewalk all night holding candles as one might do at a graveside? Would it matter if the general public chose to stare at them out of curiosity or simply walk past ignoring them? After all, one can choose whether to pay attention or not to things around oneself.
National security threat?
The Government’s rigid hard-line stance – apparently to ‘crush’ all objections to its policies and laws by Malaysians – seems to be its unfailing response to these peaceful protests. The common denominator of police-initiated brutality and violence persists.
What and who is the threat to national security? Is it a group of people standing silently in the street holding lighted candles?
The paranoia is beyond reason and logic; it is apparently a symptom of insecurity. In this grievous state of affairs, where reason is increasingly diminishing, we can only hope that the light of human rights will continue to burn, although like a “candle in the wind” (Elton John).
“Truth will set us free, truth will set us free, truth will set us free, one day.
Deep in my heart, I do believe, the truth will set us free, one day”
(Song: “We Shall Overcome”)
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