Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia's government announced legislation on Tuesday to create rules for public demonstrations, but protesters won't be allowed to take to the streets and would face other restrictions that opposition groups consider too repressive.
Malaysia is under rising pressure to improve civil liberties ahead of national elections expected next year, but the Peaceful Assembly Bill, which Parliament is likely to approve as early as next month, falls short of demands by opposition and human rights groups.
The planned law proposed by Prime Minister Najib Razak's National Front ruling coalition forbids street protests and requires organisers of demonstrations to give police 30 days notice. Officials have repeatedly urged demonstrators to gather in stadiums or confined venues to avoid public disruptions.
Children under 15 would be barred from rallies, which cannot be staged near schools, hospitals or places of worship. Protesters could be fined up to 20,000 ringgit (USD 6,200) if they break the rules.
Opposition activists also noted that the bill still enables police to reject plans for any rally.
The bill "is a total reversal of Najib's promise of providing more freedoms to the people”, said Lau Weng San of the Democratic Action Party.
Malaysian authorities faced strong criticism in July for cracking down on at least 20,000 protesters who marched in Kuala Lumpur to seek more electoral transparency. Police briefly arrested about 1,600 people and used tear gas and chemical-laced water in efforts to disperse the crowd.
The National Front has insisted that protests threaten public order. Opposition politicians say such warnings form an excuse for the government to stifle dissent and maintain its 54-year grip on power.
Officials have said the new law would nevertheless make it easier for demonstrators because they no longer need to apply for a formal permit from police.
The National Front is expected to easily pass the bill because it has slightly less than a two-thirds majority in Parliament's lower house.
In recent months, Najib has pledged to overhaul decades-old laws widely considered repressive, including ones that allow detention without trial. The opposition insists any reforms so far have been a superficial ploy to bolster the National Front's support ahead of general elections expected by mid-2012.
First Published: Tuesday, November 22, 2011, 13:28