The right to protest
A few weeks ago, I was invited to write an article for a student publication. The theme for the issue I would be writing for is “student activism”.
I found it a bit odd that I was asked to write a piece on this but the editor, in the invitation email, reminded me of my days as a student activist when I was back in Australia studying, and also my involvement in a variety of causes back in KL (especially with HIV/AIDS and Cancer Awareness) since I returned and before I left for London.
Interestingly enough, that email came a couple of days before a huge student protest was due to be held in London against the hike in student fees. I blogged about the event here.
The same way there are many forms of activism, there are also as many ways in which to show one’s protest. Some people choose lobbying, while others choose to use the power of the pen. Some people engage in hacktavism, while others opt for civil disobedience. And many people chose to go down to the street as have been happening around the world for generations (and even more pronounced this year with the events in the Middle East and North Africa).
By the time I wake up in the morning, one more would have happened in Kuala Lumpur as the Bar Council is calling for a Walk For Freedom 2011 to protest the Peaceful Assembly Bill. I won’t go into the details of the bill having only read some stuff, and not being back home, (you can read about it on the interwebs but try the Bar Council site, Loyar Burok or The Star for some details) but from what I gather, the protest is mainly against the rush to put through legislation which people believe is unconstitutional and that gives too much control to the authorities.
Naturally, many people – the authorities included – are against such a protest. In fact, there was even efforts to make amendments to the Bill, which the Bar Council still thinks is more restrictive than the current set of laws it is meant to replace.
One of the biggest issues with it is the ban on street protest, and among the reasons given was that it would be disruptive to the general public and business owners.
This is not a new argument. In fact, it is one of the biggest arguments against public demonstrations of late around the world, especially following the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street protest. In London, where the around outside of St Paul’s Cathedral is still being occupied, the same excuse was used.
I personally feel that compared to some of the issues that people around the world are protesting, using such an argument as a defence against the idea of street protests is to put it bluntly, well, weak.
Protests that are properly handled and well-organised, with the support of the authorities (or at least without too much disruptions from them) can be over in very short periods of time, have no long-term effect (except maybe change in the issue they are protesting) and cause no physical damage.
We have seen this happen many times. Personally, dating back to when I was in Australia helping to organise similar events, I have never seen any violence happen.
In fact, during the recent student protest, a large number of police were out on the streets to make sure that the events didn’t get hijacked by bad hats (the cops are able to differentiate between protestors and the troublemakers, instead of calling protestors the troublemakers). The police “led” the protest to make sure that the protestors marched on the right route and that it was contained and happened in a safe and organised manner.
In Australia, I remember police officers being around to help in case of trouble.
It may be extra work, and it may cost taxpayers money and it might not be something the Governments were happy to have happening – yet, because they recognised the importance of speaking out in a democracy, and the right of individuals to express themselves, they would do what it takes to ensure that the protests go on as peaceful as possible.
And for me, that is the core of it all. I don’t always understand the issues people are protesting, or don’t agree with their opinions, but I will defend their right to express themselves. And if this takes the form of a protest, so be it.
Instead of making it harder for people to exercise their rights, I wish that more Governments (our own and others around the world) would instead work with protestors to make sure that it is, if not a win-win situation for both sides, at least one of compromise.
It reflects best on both parties – the protestors and the one being protested against – if such an event is executed well. It shows trust, cooperation and respect – all important ingredients of a democracy.
And speaking of that, it also shows that democracy is alive and well.
I won’t be in KL for the Walk for Freedom that will happen in a few hours (Malaysian time) and I might not fully understand what is at stake, but I sure as hell will defend their right to express their opinions.
It is this belief that will be my central theme for the article I will be writing, which is due this week.
11.41pm Greenwich Meridian Time