Amid a worsening health crisis, burgeoning food inequality, and an uncertain political situation, an estimated 1,000 Malaysians took to the streets in an anti-government rally on Saturday, 31 July. Themed “Keluar dan #Lawan,” (‘Get Out and Protest’), the protest was organized by Sekretariat Solidarity Rakyat (SSR), a coalition of youth and civil society organizations. Protestors had three demands: Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to step down, parliament to continue sitting, and automatic loan moratorium for all Malaysians.
For many, the protest is the culmination of increasing frustration with the government’s mishandling of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Muhyiddin has seen backlash since he emerged as Prime Minister early last year in what critics have termed a backdoor government. Tensions grew as he declared a six-month “Emergency,” allowing the government to rule by executive order. Amnesty International Malaysia and the Centre for Independent Journalism asserted that these policies “have been weaponised against those who criticise the government of the day and its institutions.”
The end of July saw renewed pressure as several of Muhyiddin’s allies withdrew support, and he was further accused of delaying a vote that would have tested his shaky majority (Al Jazeera). As a result, opposition members of parliament argued for a Parliament sitting to be held no later than 9 August, referring to Dewan Rakyat Standing Order 11(3), which asks to table, debate, and decide on the motion of confidence on the Prime Minister. However, ahead of a planned gathering of opposition lawmakers on 2 August, the police were instructed to cordon off all roads leading to the parliamentary building.
It is out of this political instability and resulting health crisis that the protest took place. It began around 10:50 a.m. on Saturday at Masjid Jamek, one of the oldest mosques in Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital (The Vibes). Youth activists, politicians and observers from the Malaysian Bar and Human Rights Commission were spotted at the rally.
Meanwhile, reporters observed low-flying helicopters hovering over protesters. Police were carrying jammers: devices used to block cell phone signals. Protesters moving towards Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) were quickly stopped by police officials. According to The Vibes, participants instead organized themselves to sit (in a physically distant manner) along the road opposite the Kuala Lumpur City Hall headquarters. They chanted “hidup rakyat,” (‘long live the people’) and laid out mock corpses, symbolizing the high death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dissenters carried out the protest despite the ban on public gatherings under COVID-19 curbs. The international community previously praised the country for its handling of the coronavirus. However, it has since recorded the world’s sixth-highest number of cases per million people (CodeBlue). Activists such as Qyira Yusri, co-founder of a youth organization advocating for lowering the voting age, told news agency Free Malaysia Today: “I think Malaysians have no avenues left to voice out their concerns except to protest on the streets.”
In the past weeks, various youth organizations have led online campaigns, including the Black Flag movement, which criticized politicians for the mismanagement of the pandemic to voice their concerns and urge change. Instead, numerous young activists have been subjected to police intimidation and vigorous questioning. Founder of MISI: Solidarity, a youth-led collective aspiring to empower society through direct action, Sarah Irdina was arrested at her family home, where police raided her room. She was detained overnight for 10 hours on 29 July, forced to strip down to her underwear and sleep in a CCTV-monitored cell (MISI: Solidarity). The 20-year-old was questioned under the draconian Sedition Act of 1948 and the Communications and Multimedia Act for a tweet calling on people to participate in the #Lawan rally (Free Malaysia Today).
Similarly, the 11 activists who form SSR were compounded for violating Article 10 of the Regulations and Control of Infectious Diseases and were called to the Dang Wangi district police headquarters on 2 August to record their statements. They stressed that rally participants strictly followed the pandemic standard operating procedures, adhering to physical distancing and mask regulations vouched by the Human Rights Commission (Malay Mail).
SSR spokesman Mohammad Asraf Sharafi Mohammad Azhar emphasized that the authorities’ resources would be better channelled elsewhere. “We would like to stress that the #Lawan protest is not held for leisurely purposes as seen in the durian feast involving the deputy Dewan Rakyat (Parliament) speaker or political meeting at the Prime Minister’s home…” he said (Malay Mail). Despite their cooperation with the police, family members of #Lawan rally participants, including Muda’s Dr. Thanussha Francis Xavier, were subject to police intimidation.
The rampant use of police intimidation tactics against vulnerable individuals and groups, in particular, is deeply concerning. If permitted to continue, these actions point toward a deteriorating democracy, where the public’s right to freedom of expression is increasingly undermined. Anti-corruption bodies such as Bersih 2.0 have urged Prime Minister Muhyiddin to immediately call an emergency Parliament to prove he holds majority support. It is also imminent that the Royal Malaysia Police do not initiate nor pursue any criminal investigations, arrests, or harassment against organizers or protesters at the rally.
Authorities should further uphold Article 10 of the constitution, which allows for the freedom of assembly, by ceasing all heavy-handed tactics against peaceful protesters and government critics. As a long-term solution, the government, as facilitated by local and international bodies, should re-evaluate the purpose of the sedition law. This colonial law has long inflicted harm on innocent individuals and families.
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