A mass gathering in Malaysia to celebrate human rights today has been postponed at the eleventh hour amid security concerns, as another rally takes place in Kuala Lumpur on the same day.
Malaysia's Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) said yesterday that the celebration, at which Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was to be guest of honour, will be postponed to Sunday.
Police had advised the commission to postpone its gathering in conjunction with Human Rights Day, citing risks that border on national security.
Expressing disappointment at having to push back its event that was planned months before, Suhakam chairman Razali Ismail said the explanation given by the authorities was not satisfactory.
"We were not satisfied that... 'security risks' was used as a reason," Tan Sri Razali told reporters yesterday. "This is new Malaysia. We must count on the ability of police... to ensure that we do not have to compromise on events".
Another gathering, a protest-turned-thanksgiving rally organised by Malaysia's largest Malay-Muslim parties Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), will proceed today.
Umno and PAS leaders have claimed that about 500,000 of their members will turn up to celebrate the administration's decision to not ratify a UN convention against racial discrimination.
Rally-goers, comprising members of the country's dominant Malay community, will congregate at the capital's historic square Dataran Merdeka from 2pm.
Tun Dr Mahathir explained yesterday that this rally was allowed to proceed since "the government doesn't wish to stop or make it difficult for rally organisers because it's against the government's principle of upholding democracy".
Suhakam had estimated about 3,000 people would attend its event in Petaling Jaya, about 10km from the one in central Kuala Lumpur.
"This is where our disappointment lies. In a country where democracy works and human rights is the cornerstone, the right to assemble - and ours is an event to celebrate - must be guaranteed with security provided by the security forces," said Suhakam commissioner Jerald Joseph.
The postponement drew criticism from civil society leaders, who said the reformist Pakatan Harapan government had bowed down too easily to right-wing conservatives.
Activist and lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan tweeted: "We have many excellent ministers. But they are getting too easily spooked by rallies!"
Malaysia's new government had promised, in its election manifesto ahead of polls in May, to ratify international conventions on human rights.
Dr Mahathir, in a speech to the UN General Assembly in September, had reiterated the coalition's promise, including ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (Icerd).
Malay conservatives, however, object to Icerd, saying it would jeopardise rights and privileges granted to Malays under the country's decades-old affirmative action policy. Subsequent nationwide protests against Icerd caused the government to back down without explanation.
Mr Jerald said: "This new Cabinet must take on board what new Malaysia means in terms of freedom of expression. You can't pick and choose, the ones who are bigger, louder."
Umno and PAS leaders have said today's rally will be peaceful. Police said movements in and out of the city would be monitored from midnight yesterday, and that anti-riot personnel will be on standby.
Dr Mahathir reminded the rally organisers yesterday to ensure that there was no chaos or destruction of public properties. "If possible, don't litter everywhere... I hope the rally proceeds smoothly... Let's together celebrate democracy in Malaysia."