(New York) - Malaysia's home affairs minister should overturn a decision by local police to deny a permit for the Solidarity March Against Racism sponsored by two ethnic Indian rights groups, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 24, 2011, the Dang Wangi police rejected a formal request made on February 11 by W. Sambulingam, national coordinator of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), to permit the march.
"Malaysian government opposition to peaceful marches results in three big losers: the rights to free expression, freedom of association, and peaceful assembly," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The home affairs minister should respect Malaysia's international legal obligations and permit the march to proceed, and the organizers should ensure that the march is orderly and peaceful."
The February 27 march is in reaction to a government decision to assign the novel Interlok as a literature textbook for fifth form students, most in their late teens, in some public schools. The novel by Abdullah Hussain, first published in 1971 and revised in 2010, involves relations among ethnic Malays, Chinese, and Indians from the early 1900s through 1957. Members of the Indian community contend that the book disparages Indians and contributes to ethnic tensions and discrimination in educational and employment opportunities for ethnic Indian Malaysians.
The anticipated route for the march is from Kuala Lumpur's iconic Petronas Towers to the Dang Wangi police station, where participants will attempt to lodge complaints against the prime minister and the government. Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein earlier had said that Hindraf would not get a police permit to march.
"They are an illegal and banned movement," he said. "They don't have locus standi [legal standing] in asking for a permit."
The government banned the group after a demonstration in 2007. The Human Rights Party (HRP) has applied for registration, which is pending.
The government has already cracked down on the HRP's right to peaceful assembly. On February 13, two weeks before the scheduled march, HRP initiated a grassroots information and recruitment drive in several Malaysian states, dispatching convoys of cars loaded with activists wearing the group's distinctive orange T-shirts and carrying posters, banners, and assorted promotional materials to various locales. Police stopped the convoys at roadblocks and diverted participants to police stations, where many were detained.
The police arrested at least 59 people on various grounds. In one instance, participants were held for driving in a convoy without a permit. In other instances, police charged the activists with illegal assembly, interference with on-duty officers, obstructing traffic, and moving in a large group in a busy area. Some participants, held overnight, were offered their freedom if they gave up their orange T-shirts, but when it became clear they would not do so, they were released on bail.
On February 20, police in three locations broke up HRP forums designed to explain the group's concerns about certain issues and to continue membership recruitment. The police claimed that permission to hold the forums had been denied. HRP leaders were among some 59 arrested. Ultimately all were released on bail. In a further pre-emptive move, M. Gobalakrishnan, the person named on fliers as the contact for further information in Hulu Selangor, was picked up at his home by six plainclothes officers hours before the local meeting was to begin and arrested. Police also sealed off the forum site. Gobalakrishnan has since been released.
In November 2007, between 10,000 and 30,000 people participated in the first Hindraf-organized demonstration. The prime minister at that time, Abdullah Badawi, reportedly said that Hindraf leaders undermined national security by threatening racial and religious harmony. Following the protest, the government detained five Hindraf leaders under the Internal Security Act (ISA), and banned Hindraf. The HRP's application for registration, though pending with the Registrar of Societies, will likely face significant difficulties because of its association with Hindraf.
"The Malaysian government's commitment to diversity and development is betrayed when it refuses to permit peaceful criticism of its policies and programs," Robertson said. "Banning this march makes a mockery of the principles the government pledged to uphold when it assumed its seat on the United Nation's Human Rights Council."