Malaysia Bill on Demonstrations Draws Protests

By James Hookway, Wall Street Journal

The scope of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s vaunted political overhaul is disappointing opposition and legal activists in the badly fragmented nation, who argue that new laws drafted to protect political protests might actually limit dissent.

Mr. Najib formally introduced to Malaysia’s Parliament on Thursday one piece of legislation to end a ban on students’ joining political parties and another to lift emergency rules that enable police in some cases to detain people without trial.

Political activists, though, say they are concerned about a third proposed law, introduced by the government Tuesday. Under the Peaceful Assembly Bill, police officials would no longer have the power to ban a political demonstration—but protesters would still be prevented from demonstrating wherever they like, notably on the country’s streets, and would have to provide police 30 days’ notice.

Malaysia has a long history of repressing political demonstrations. Police broke up a rally for political reforms in July, for instance, with water cannon and tear gas, triggering widespread criticism both in Malaysia and internationally—and prompting Mr. Najib to rethink the country’s security laws.

Mr. Najib on Thursday said the new legislation shows his government is “taking a brave moral stand” and listening to the people of Malaysia.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said opposition parties would argue against the Peaceful Assembly Bill in Parliament, but political analysts said it is unlikely he could stop its passage. A prominent protest organizer, Ambiga Sreenivasan, said the proposed law would only set back legitimate dissent.

Legal activists also were unimpressed. Bar council president Lim Chee Wee described the new assembly law as “restrictive” and expressed his surprise that street protests would be outlawed. The bill would also prohibit gatherings within 50 meters of schools, hospitals and places of worship.

The government describes the legislative package as a dramatic liberalization of security laws, designed to promote democratic debate. Other planned measures would abolish the Internal Security Act (another law allowing for detention without trial) and end the requirement that news media have their permits renewed annually.

Many of the country’s security laws were introduced after deadly race riots in 1969, and racial issues still permeate the country. They’ve hindered previous efforts to repeal laws such as the Internal Security Act. Mr. Najib, though, is slowly working to level the racial playing field, rolling back some affirmative-action policies designed to benefit the country’s majority ethnic-Malay population.

Analysts say these changes and the proposed overhaul of the country’s security laws are a bid to claw back some of the center ground in Malaysian politics that the ruling coalition has lost to Mr. Anwar’s multiethnic opposition alliance. Mr. Najib has to call fresh elections within the next 18 months.