KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 30 —Opposition and rights groups are planning a massive rally in March to push for the abolishment of the harsh Internal Security Act. The rally, which organisers are hoping will be as big as the one held in November last year to push for electoral reform, could embarrass the government if thousands turn up on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
The so-called Bersih rally last year saw up to 50,000 people marching on the streets of Kuala Lumpur to the King's palace to demand changes to the country's electoral system.
It was the biggest anti-government rally since the reformasi street protests in 1998 to support Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, who was sacked from government.
Another anti-government rally, this time by Hindu rights supporters, took place in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 25, just two weeks after the Bersih protest. Five leaders of the organisers, the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf), were detained under the ISA following the protest.
The planned street demonstration on March 21 next year will be organised after several non-governmental organisations and opposition political parties formed a coalition two months ago called Sekretariat Mansuhkan ISA (Abolish ISA Secretariat), or Mansuh for short.
Mansuh held a mini-rally last night to kick off several anti-ISA events ahead of the big protest in March, the location of which has yet to be decided.
Mansuh's organising committee includes Abolish ISA Movement (AIM) chief Syed Ibrahim Noh and other members of NGOs and opposition parties. AIM itself is a coalition that wants the ISA laws repealed.
While critics say that street protests, such as the ones by Bersih and Hindraf, would serve only to disrupt businesses and soil Kuala Lumpur's reputation, Mansuh disagrees.
Kamaruzaman Mohamad, vice-chairman of Mansuh and a youth leader of the opposition Pas, said attempts by rights groups and the opposition to persuade the government to abolish the ISA had failed.
“We have done so many things — sent memorandums, signature campaigns,” he said. “But the impact is so slow that we decided to try and gather tens of thousands of people on the street to show the government how we really feel about the ISA.”
He brushed aside concerns that such a rally could potentially cause dangerous situations. “The impact of the ISA is worse than the rally itself. Our intention is not to create havoc,” he said.
Critics of the ISA, which allows for detention without trial, say that it is used to control political dissent.
But Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said the ISA is not used for the political interest of the ruling party but to ensure peace and public order, and that it would not be amended or abolished despite threats and criticisms from various quarters, Bernama reported yesterday.
There are still 46 ISA detainees in Malaysia, according to Malaysiakini online news. Most of them are being detained at the Kamunting detention centre.
In recent months, AIM has been holding regular candlelight vigils nationwide to protest against the use of the ISA, prompted by several arrests in September this year.
Said opposition lawmaker Tian Chua: “It is perfectly all right to have a peaceful gathering to state our stand... No public demonstrator wants to intentionally create chaos as it would divert attention from the issue.”
The government this month released six ISA detainees who were accused of being Muslim terrorists, saying they have been reformed.
But Kamaruzaman maintained that this was not enough. “The strategy (to appease the critics) is to release some detainees. But we hope that the government will abolish the law,” he said.
In response, Internal Security and Public Order director Hussin Ismail warned that police would not hesitate to take action if the March street protest goes ahead illegally. “For any assembly without police permit, we will take action,” he told The Straits Times.
Under Malaysian law, a public gathering of three or more people requires a police permit.
The government had, in the past, often reacted harshly against street demonstrations, saying it wanted to keep public order.
Protesters at both the Bersih and Hindraf rallies were sprayed with water cannon and some were arrested.
The protests also caused shops in some parts of downtown Kuala Lumpur to be closed. — The Straits Times