Do Malaysians have the right to rally?

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The reds marching in Thailand on 27 March 2010

Does the holding of political rallies necessarily lead to chaos and disorder? CY explores this intriguing question in the light of the mass rallies now taking place in Thailand. 

 

How do we interpret rallies in the context of democratisation? Does the holding of rallies necessarily lead to chaos and disorder as some Southeast Asian leaders have argued time and time again? Or do rallies allow people to express their views in order to bring about change? How do we the ordinary people in Malaysia – whether middle class or orang kampung (village people) perceive the holding of a rally?

The on-going mass rallies that began in mid-March in the ‘Bangkok area’ – which for the locals refer to the area surrounding the Grand Palace, Democracy Monument, and Wat Pho, which are also the main tourist spots – are completely different from the usual small “political rallies” in Malaysia, to say the least.

It is interesting to note how the media have been reporting the Thai rallies. We have been told that the demonstrations and gatherings held in the tourist areas have cost huge losses to Thailand’s tourist industry; that they have worsened traffic conditions in the Bangkok area; and that they have also created chaos and disorder for Bangkokians (most of the demonstrators are from the northern part of Thailand). Little has been reported about the singing and dancing, the parades, the content of the leaflets distributed, and the speeches that have been made by the Red Shirts.

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Apparently, one day before the scheduled demonstration, the protesters had thought through carefully how to ensure that their demonstration was peaceful.  Booths were set up at designated areas along the highways heading to the Democracy Monument. A stage was set up in the area too. The locals knew ahead of time what was going to happen and many if not most knew when and how to avoid getting caught in the rally.

No doubt, the traffic situation has turned chaotic. On 25 March, we were told by a taxi driver (himself a hardcore Thaksin supporter), in poor English, not to walk around the  Bangkok area in the morning hours of 27 March for we would be caught in the rally. Since we are stubborn tourists, we ignored his advice and continued to get a taxi on the rally day to reach our destination. Here we were, caught in the traffic. It took us almost five hours to get to our destination, whereas in normal times it would take us only an hour. Yes, I grew increasingly frustrated the longer I sat in my taxi.

However, since our taxi was moving at a snail’s pace, I had the opportunity to observe all the goings-on. The local shop owners and the hawkers (except perhaps our taxi driver) were not much disturbed by the rally marching. Children were playing on the pedestrian walks while some adults (perhaps their parents) were waving their hands, showing support for the “Reds.”

Eventually, we had to abandon our taxi and walk to the nearest Skytrain station. To my surprise, the ‘demonstrators’ were pleasantly friendly, and at no time did we feel threatened. In the midst of the labyrinth of metropolitan Bangkok, we were being approached by the “Reds” who either directed us to the nearest Skytrain station or advised to get a motorbike service (one of their public transport services), which would allow us to escape the traffic.

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These unplanned experiences that I gained in Thailand prompted me to rethink the political rallies in Malaysia. Most Malaysians always assume that rallies will bring chaos. True, it does, as far as traffic conditions are concerned. But have we ever “thought out of the box” that rallies can be “fun,” exciting, and peaceful, that they can also keep us informed of alternative agendas and empower us?

My little direct participation in one particular small rally in Malaysia reminded me  of quite similar experiences in Thailand. The vigil that was held in Dewan Sri Penang at first was a bit intimidating due to the present of police personnel. But as the vigil progressed with its schedule, it gave me a sense of empowerment. The speeches at the vigil provided me with an alternative historical background of the ISA and the personalities involved, which our conventional historical books would have ignored. I had the chance to scrutinise the politicians who were giving (short) speeches. I had “fun,” so to speak, holding candles and singing songs with many like-minded people, which also sort of created a “romantic” ambiance in the courtyard of the hall. All in all, the vigil was organised in a decent and peaceful manner.

So how do I interpret rallies in the context of democratisation? Rakyat Malaysia, rallies do not always create chaos; they can be carried out in a meaningful way and they can empower you!

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