On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Express freely, not violently

These street protests have, in  fact, taken on a more ugly dimension with
people getting hurt and  property

As expected, both sides have  pointed
fingers at each other. The  police have
said the gatherings  were illegal and
that the demonstrators turned up prepared.

The protesters, in turn, have  claimed
that it was the police who  provoked them
with high-handed  tactics, resulting in
violent retaliation.

There is obviously a need to end  this
impasse. The police have, in  the past,
allowed opposition parties  to hold
political gatherings involving thousands of supporters.

PAS, for example, regularly  holds
gatherings at its headquarters while the DAP prefers dinner  ceramahs at restaurants and forums in hotels
to discuss controversial issues.

Often, opposition parties have  got away
scot-free with their illegal gatherings. The police would  allow the speakers to proceed and  then ask the crowd to disperse.

Since last month, the police have 
rejected applications to hold such 
gatherings on security grounds.

The proposed pro-government  rally by the
Barisan Nasional  Youth at the National
Stadium in  Bukit Jalil was rejected

The sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim from the Government  and Umno has been an emotional  and divisive issue with many taking a
partisan stand.

In discussing the issue, many  Malaysians
find themselves having to take a stand despite their reluctance.

There is no such thing as being  neutral.
Everything is black or  white, with no
grey area. You are  either pro-Anwar or

The impression given by certain 
non-government organisations now 
is that freedom of expression has 
been denied. The street demonstrations, they argue, is the only  option left in the absence of such  an avenue.

It is obvious that we need to consider some form of channel for dissidents to
let off steam.

Fighting for human rights is fine  but
traders in Jalan Tuanku Abdul  Rahman and
the surrounding areas  are upset that
their right to earn a  living has been
affected. Taxi drivers and tour operators have also  complained of a drastic drop in income.

The police have to seriously consider allowing groups to hold ceramahs in
designated areas.

Organisers of such gatherings  can work
closely with the police to  ensure that the
security and logistical aspects are taken care of.  They will also have to keep to the  time limit and the number of  speakers allowed.

If these conditions are not met,  the
police can immediately call off  the
gathering. If necessary, a deposit must be placed with the owner of the
premises and the police to  pay for any
property damage.

We cannot ignore the importance  of
allowing Malaysians to express  their
legitimate concern in a democratically-elected society. It is a  right that must be respected.

But we must also not be so naive  as to
believe that a well-intended  gathering
will not turn violent.

In a crowd of 10,000 people, all  you
need is a group of rabble-rousers to charge the atmosphere.

The police may have good reason  for not
issuing a permit  from  the security aspect which we may  not be privy to  but where security threat is unlikely, people
must  be allowed to gather.

This will earn the authorities  much
goodwill as it will rebut allegations that police are curbing basic freedoms.

However, demonstrators must  realise that
when they attend such  gatherings, they
should be prepared to face the consequences.

A demonstration is not a picnic.  It
holds elements of danger and  risks.
Bringing children to the  street to
demonstrate is obviously  the height of

There is certainly a need for the  police
to restrain themselves, even  in a tense
situation where the likelihood of injury is real.

At the same time, we must admit  that a
certain degree of force and  fear is required
when dealing with  a mob.

It is not right to say that the police have not given enough warnings to the

The weekly demonstrations have  been so
well-organised that their  time and place
are known to the  public in

Warnings are given by the police  through
the press, through the information ministry van and  through loud hailers on the spot.

Arrested demonstrators often  claim
innocence and say they are  mere
bystanders. The point is: If  you have no
business to be there,  stay away.

That aside, democracy has no  meaning if
we deviate from democratic norms.

It is the right of the Opposition  to
check the Executive and to question any decline in freedom and democracy.

In the past, massive signature  campaigns
have been successful in  mobilising
public opinion on such  issues as Bukit
China, the Societies  Act and the
Official Secrets Act.

Public demands contributed to  the
Government's decision to review various aspects of these issues.

Groups could also lobby MPs to  push for
their concerns  which is  why NGOs should forge a coalition  among themselves rather than  with opposition parties. Government
backbenchers would be more  accommodative
with NGOs if they  are not linked to any
opposition  party.

In issuing statements, NGOs  must realise
that they can influence the people, either directly or  indirectly. Public condemnation of  street violence by oppositionists  and NGOs would not help if they  themselves were contributing factors to such
irresponsible actions.

We Malaysians must constantly  remind
ourselves that we are one,  irrespective
of political differences.

Let us not be quick to criticise  those
who genuinely wish to see  greater
democracy in this country.  At the same
time, let us not throw  away in a moment
of haste what  has been achieved over the
last 10  years.