BN concerned with voter perception over Bersih suit
KUALA LUMPUR, May 27 — The Barisan Nasional (BN) government’s suit against Bersih leaders using the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) has raised concern from among its own ranks that the move may confirm opposition claims that the law is more restrictive than previous regulations.
Although they told The Malaysian Insider the rule of law must be respected, they appeared uncertain of how voters would perceive the use of the law, a key legislation in the Najib administration’s raft of democratic reforms, ahead of a general election expected within months.
On Wednesday, 10 Bersih steering committee members including chairman Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, became the first persons to be sued in a civil action under the PAA, enforced just days before the April 28 demonstration for free and fair elections.
The government is claiming RM122,000 for alleged damage to 15 government-owned vehicles, citing Section 6(2)(g) of the PAA which states that organisers must “ensure that the assembly will not endanger health or cause damage to property or the environment.”
Datuk Seri Najib Razak had said when introducing the law last year that it would be a “revolutionary” piece of legislation which allows freedom of assembly “in accordance with international norms”.
But lawmakers from Pakatan Rakyat (PR) have said the suit, which follows Tuesday’s charges under the same law of participating in an unlawful assembly brought against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin Ali, point to a “demonisation campaign and shows the prime minister is no reformist but reactionary.”
“There is real concern of how the public will view the government, which will appear to be sending mixed signals,” Umno’s Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah told The Malaysian Insider.
MCA central committee member Datuk Ti Lian Ker also agreed with DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang that the move was more “reactionary” and came because “the establishment has been challenged and if no action is taken, then where is the authority?”
But he stressed that the government had little choice in the matter.
“Bersih cites a ‘cause’ and so it has higher moral ground. But the government has to put its foot down and say you are not above the law,” the lawyer, who is also MCA Kuantan chief said.
BN Backbenchers Club vice-chairman Datuk Abdul Rahman Dahlan also said that while some contended that the PAA “is not fair, it is still the law and it was broken.”
“We are so close to an election, there is no need to keep going to the streets. PR can put it into their manifesto and see if people support free demonstrations without restrictions,” the Kota Belud MP said.
The federal opposition had staged a walkout last November when the Act was debated in Parliament after criticising the law, which bars “assemblies in motion”, as being more repressive than those in countries like Myanmar, which has one of the world’s poorest human rights records.
The April 28 rally that saw tens of thousands gather at six different locations before heading to Dataran Merdeka was peaceful until about 2.30pm when Ambiga asked the crowd to disperse.
But her announcement was not heard by most of the crowd who persisted to linger around the historic square which the court had already barred to the public over the weekend.
Just before 3pm, some protestors breached the barricade surrounding the landmark, leading police to disperse the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.
Police then continued to pursue rally-goers down several streets amid chaotic scenes which saw violence from both sides over the next four hours.
Several dozen demonstrators have claimed that they were assaulted by groups of over 10 policemen at a time and visual evidence appears to back their claim but police also point to violence from rally-goers who also attacked a police car.
The police car then crashed into a building before some protestors flipped it on its side.