By Mahathir’s own standards, the Barisan Nasional government is trigger-happy with the mass arrests and massive police clampdown against peaceful assembly yesterday, with the police dragnet covering not only seven Keadilan leaders – with three Keadilan leaders arrested yesterday, namely Keadilan Information chief Ruslan Kassim, Keadilan Youth leader Mohd Ezam Mohd Noor and Keadilan Youth assistant secretary Gobala Krishnan – but also other Keadilan state leaders with reports of arrests in various states, including Penang and Malacca.
The Prime Minister had been full of praise for the WTO Seattle demonstrations
at the end of last year for saving Malaysia from the evils of globalisation,
when he said in his New Year Message on 31st December 1999 that "If
not for the demonstrations against the WTO (World Trade Organisation)
in Seattle, maybe another part of our border will have collapsed."
Mahathir’s praise for the WTO Seattle demonstrations was all the more remarkable as more than 500 people were arrested in Seattle where thousands of street protestors blocked the roads to shut down the WTO, forcing the abandonment of the opening ceremonies and disrupting the 3rd Ministerial Conference of the WTO on 30 November 1999.
This is a recognition that social protests arising from the fundamental right of peaceful assembly has an important role to play in the important process of decision-making, not only at the national but also international arena as well as shaping the local and world-wide civil society.
The most basic causes of the Seattle protests were the non-transparent and undemocratic nature of the WTO system, the blatant manipulation of that system by the major powers, the refusal of many developing countries to continue to be on the receiving end, and worldwide NGO calls for globalization with a human face with greater equity in the globalization process.
The Seattle demonstrations herald the advent of a global civil society. The WTO was shut down by thousands of NGO activists worldwide with nothing but determination and unarmed human bodies. The protests helped bring a halt to the Third Round of negotiations between powerful world leaders who wanted to trade in more of the earth's forests, compromise more laws protecting public health, and open up the public services for sale to corporations. With little help and every hindrance from the corporate media, activists brought this secret new oligarchy, quickly expanding its powers over democracies around the world, into public view.
Even now, Washington is bracing itself for potentially massive demonstrations for the meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Fully mindful of what happened in Seattle last December during the WTO summit, Washington officials want to avoid a repeat performance tomorrow, when as many as 10,000 protesters plan to block streets leading to the World Bank and IMF buildings.
The Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey said: "We want people to be able to exercise their rights in a protest. That's not a problem. We're gonna work with groups. What we're trying to do is avoid what happened in Seattle."
The Malaysian government and police should take a leaf from their counterparts in the United States and respect the fundamental rights of Malaysians of conscience to make peaceful social protests for the good of society while drawing a clear line of distinction against violence of any form.
The least the police should have done first, before launching the mass arrests and the massive show of force, is to call in the Keadilan organisers to seek a full assurance of the peacefulness of the assembly.
It is unacceptable and hypocritical for Mahathir and the Barisan Nasional government to strike the attitude of "Seattle, Washington – Yes; but Kuala Lumpur – No" as far as peaceful social protests are concerned.
It is most unfair and undemocratic, bearing all the marks of a regime
of repression, for the authorities to make baseless accusations that peaceful
protestors were out to create riots and violence, and to use these self-made
accusations as a basis for a massive police crackdown - ignoring
all instructions for an orderly and peaceful assembly, without possession
of any objects that could be construed as calculated to provoke violence
or any form of disorder.
The mass arrests and massive show of police force to suppress a peaceful assembly to mark the first anniversary of the imprisonment of former Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is unprecedented and is another milestone in the progressive deterioration of human rights in Malaysia after the Barisan Nasional’s two-thirds parliamentary victory in the 10th general election on November 29, 1999.
The mass arrests and massive show of police force have made Black April 2000 another episode in the long litany of human rights violations in Malaysia.
This also marks the third pressing test to the independence, credibility and integrity of the newly-formed Human Rights Commission – to take a clear-cut stand to uphold freedom of expression and free press, a just rule of law and a truly independent judiciary and now to speak up against the further lurch towards a police state and to uphold the right of Malaysians to peaceful social protests for the restoration of justice, freedom, democracy and good governance in Malaysia.