The police [launched a] crackdown on participants of Women’s March Malaysia 2023 held on 12 March in conjunction with International Women’s Day, which saw about 200 participants.
Police said they were now investigating [the matter] for offences under the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and the Minor Offences Act 1995.
Worse, notices to be present at the police station for investigation were sent out to about seven people in the middle of the night, according to the organisers of the March.(Star, 13/3/2023)
The right to peaceful assembly is a right recognised under Article 10(1)(b) of the Federal Constitution – Article 10 also gives us the right to freedom of speech and expression. Thus, participants in a peaceful assembly can shout out and even hold placards [expressing] matters, issues, concerns or rights that even the government of the day may not support.
Peaceful assembly is a means of advocating issues and concerns to the public to create awareness and garner more support. That is why a peaceful assembly rightly should be organised in a place where it can be seen and heard by the public. So many times have permission to have a peaceful assembly in Dataran Merdeka [Independent Square] been denied when really it is a good venue for a peaceful assembly. It should be a right to have a peaceful assembly in any public space.
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A peaceful assembly attracts participants from all walks of society, not just members of organisations or political parties. As such, it is absurd to hold responsible the organiser for the actions of some individual participants who may have come to join the protest on becoming aware of it.
It must be remembered that the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (PAA) was enacted despite protests from the Malaysian Bar, the Malaysian human rights commission Suhakam, civil society and many others.
On 29 November 2011, the Malaysian Bar organised a “Walk for freedom 2011: Peaceful Assembly Bill cannot and must not become law!”, which reportedly was attended by about 1,500 people.
The Peaceful Assembly Act is a draconian law that restricts and deters the exercise of the real right to peaceful assembly.
Permission required for a human right?
It simply gives the police too much power even to impose conditions and restrictions. Even after ‘giving approval’, the police can suddenly change their minds and impose other restrictions.
On 17 June 2022, the Malaysian Bar’s “Walk for judicial independence”, attended by about 500 lawyers, was suddenly prevented by the police from marching to Parliament from the assembly point in Padang Merbok. Previously, they could march to Parliament and a restriction was placed on the number of representatives that could go beyond the Parliament gate.
No immediate peaceful assembly?
People in Malaysia cannot speedily exercise the right to peaceful assembly because of the five-day notice police requirement and the other onerous obligations imposed by the law.
So, for example, when Israel commits atrocities against the Palestinians or the government tables a ‘bad’ law, people in Malaysia can no longer organise an immediate peaceful assembly – something which often happened before the PAA. A protest more than five days later is simply too late and will probably not get much public support or media attention.
No right for the young
The lowering of the minimum voting age allows those who are 18 or above to vote but the PAA says they cannot organise a peaceful assembly unless they are 21 and above. It denies the right of children to organise and participate in peaceful assemblies despite Malaysia being a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The PAA unjustifiably denies non-citizens the right to peaceful assembly. Hence, Myanmar nationals could not protest the violation of rights of the Rohingya people or even dangerous rare earth factories.
Onerous obligations on ‘organisers’
The organisers are, amongst others, made responsible for all participants not breaking any laws, arranging ‘security’ to be in charge of the orderly conduct., bearing the clean-up cost and getting the consent of the owner or occupier of the place of assembly.
The PAA is a tool to control and restrict the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly. It is also used to deter [people with] actions like that taken against the participants of the of Women’s March. All in all, it deters, when it should be protecting the exercise of the right. The government, including the police, should be protecting those who exercise this right, and not the opposite.
Pre-PAA, things were generally better
Before the enactment of the PAA, there was a better right to peaceful assembly but the problem then was a gathering of more than three or five people was considered a crime, and as such [there was a] risk of being charged with taking part in a peaceful assembly. But then, when peaceful assemblies do happen, the police ask the people after some time to disperse and that is that. Seldom did we find persons investigated or charged, save for the later 1998 Reformasi protests, which saw hundreds arrested and charged.
Penal Code prevents assembly of five or more
It must be noted, that despite the enactment of the PAA, Section 141 of the Penal Code strangely is still not repealed; it states that an assembly of five or more persons is designated an “unlawful assembly”, if it, amongst others, causes mischief or criminal trespass or other offence.
As we know excessive noise is an offence under the Minor Offences Act, and we recall that in 2015, 11 workers from the National Union of Tobacco Industry Workers (NUTIW) were arrested from the legal picket for “excessive noise”.
Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet) calls for the immediate repeal of the PAA. Another act that truly respects the right to peaceful assembly could always be later enacted.
Madpet also calls for the repeal of Section 114 of the Penal Code that criminalises or deters the right to peaceful assembly.
Madpet calls for the police to stop ‘harassing’ participants of the Women’s March Malaysia 2023 and others who exercised their right to peaceful assembly.
Madpet calls for Malaysia to recognise and defend the people’s right to peaceful assembly. – Madpet
Charles Hector issued this statement on behalf of Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture