Malaysia to ban street protests under new law

AP News
Posted: Nov 22, 2011 4:38 AM
Malaysia to ban street protests under new law

Malaysia's government announced Tuesday it will enact new rules for public demonstrations, including a ban on street protests and other restrictions that opposition groups say are too repressive.

Despite being under pressure to improve civil liberties ahead of national elections expected next year, the ruling party introduced a legislation known as the Peaceful Assembly Bill that proposes a range of curbs on the public.

The legislation, which Parliament is likely to approve as early as next month, effectively rejects many of the reforms demanded by opposition and human rights groups, which accused Prime Minister Najib Razak of reneging on his promise to make Malaysia a more liberal and freer society.

The bill "is a total reversal of Najib's promise of providing more freedoms to the people," said Lau Weng San of the Democratic Action Party.

The planned law proposed by Najib's National Front makes one concession -- it removes a requirement for demonstrators to get a police permit, which in many cases is denied to opposition parties.

Demonstrators will nevertheless be required to give a 30-day notice to the police, who can impose various restrictions or even reject the proposed time and place for the demonstration.

They also cannot take to the streets, effectively forcing them to be confined to stadiums or public halls. They also cannot make statements that can "promote feelings of ill will," according to the text of the bill.

Children under 15 would be barred from rallies, which cannot be staged near schools, hospitals or places of worship. Protesters could be fined up to 20,000 ringgit ($6,200) if they break the rules.

The prime minister's office said in a statement that the legislation "makes it easier for Malaysians to express their views without putting public order at risk" and represented the latest stage of Najib's "progressive package of social and political reforms."

Malaysian authorities faced strong criticism in July for cracking down on at least 20,000 protesters who marched in Kuala Lumpur to seek more electoral transparency. Police briefly arrested about 1,600 people and used tear gas and chemical-laced water in efforts to disperse the crowd.

The National Front has insisted that protests threaten public order. Opposition politicians say such warnings form an excuse for the government to stifle dissent and maintain its 54-year grip on power.

The National Front is expected to easily pass the bill because it has slightly less than a two-thirds majority in Parliament's lower house.

In recent months, Najib has pledged to overhaul decades-old laws widely considered repressive, including ones that allow detention without trial. The opposition insists any reforms so far have been a superficial ploy to bolster the National Front's support ahead of general elections expected by mid-2012.