(New York) - Police in Kuala Lumpur should permit a public rally and march organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (known as Bersih) to proceed as planned on Saturday November 10, Human Rights Watch said today. New elections, although not mandated before May 2009, are expected to take place early in 2008.
“The grounds for refusing the rally are nonsense,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If Malaysia wants to count itself a democracy, it can begin by upholding constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly. The way the system works now, only the ruling coalition can get its messages out.”
Current Malaysian law bans public gatherings of more than five persons without a permit. Kuala Lumpur’s police chief has warned the public that they risk arrest, fines and jail if they participate in the Bersih rally and march, adding that roadblocks and road closures would be in place. Police plans also include the deployment of some 4,000 officers and checks on all cars coming in from outside Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia’s inspector-general of police took the unusual step of reiterating the warnings.
“Organizers of the Bersih rally only want to create a level playing field for all in the coming elections, yet they are being denied the basic right of expressing their concerns in a peaceful demonstration,” said Adams. “Prime Minister Badawi claims to be a reformer, but when it comes to holding onto power, he and his party make one set of rules for themselves and another for everyone else.”
Approximately 70 nongovernmental organizations and opposition political parties have asked the government to implement a series of reforms to address widespread election irregularities. Bersih’s initial request to assemble in Merdeka Square in downtown Kuala Lumpur to march to the national palace to deliver a memorandum to the king was denied on the grounds that the organization was not a registered body, that City Hall had not approved use of the square, that the square would be otherwise occupied, that the march would inconvenience drivers, and that the march could affect public order.
The organizers disputed each of these points. Although Bersih is not a registered organization, the participating groups are registered. Organizers have pledged that Merdeka Square would be cleared in plenty of time for the subsequent event, and said that they chose this long holiday weekend to inconvenience as few drivers as possible. To address public safety concerns, organizers have asked participants to refrain from carrying anything that could compromise the organizers’ peaceful intent and have assured the police that 600 volunteers in addition to those from participating political parties would be on hand to ensure a nonviolent and safe event. Observers from neutral organizations have also been recruited.
Malaysia’s parliamentary elections have been characterized by vote buying, the use of public resources by the ruling parties, and gerrymandering. The Election Commission has been accused of bias. Bersih has asked that indelible ink be used to prevent voters from casting more than one vote, removal of alleged phantom voters from the electoral rolls, elimination of the widespread use of absentee ballots by government workers, and access to state-controlled media by all political parties. To date, the Election Commission has only agreed to using indelible ink.
“The government should not be afraid to allow Malaysians to raise very basic issues about the fundamental right to vote in Merdeka Square,” said Adams. “What is a democracy without public rallies by all involved, including civil society and opposition parties?”