KUALA LUMPUR - A mass gathering in Malaysia to celebrate human rights on Saturday (Dec 8) 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 on Friday 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’s chairman Razali Ismail said the explanation given by authorities was not satisfactory.
“We were not satisfied that ... ‘security risks’ was used as a reason,” Tan Sri Razali told reporters on Friday. “This is new Malaysia. We must count on the ability of police ... to ensure that we do not have to compromise on events”.
The Suhakam gathering was one of two planned in KL on Saturday, stirring unease among the police and prompting a travel warning from Singapore.
The other gathering, a protest-turned-thanksgiving rally organised by the country’s largest Malay-Muslim parties Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), will proceed instead on Saturday.
Umno and PAS leaders have claimed that about 500,000 of its members will turn up in central Kuala Lumpur to celebrate the new administration backing down on ratifying a United Nations 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 on Friday that this rally is 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 a 3,000-strong crowd at 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. Tun 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 the Saturday rally will be peaceful. Police said movements in and out of the city would be monitored from midnight today, and that anti-riot personnel will be on standby.
Dr Mahathir reminded the rally organisers to ensure there was no chaos or destruction of public property. “If possible, don’t litter everywhere ... I hope the rally proceeds smoothly ... Lets together celebrate democracy in Malaysia,” he said on Friday.