Some two dozen activists and other concerned Malaysians held a candlelight vigil in central George Town, Penang to uphold the right to freedom of assembly on a day which saw five Hindraf leaders detained under the ISA.
The small crowd, which included Aliran and Suaram members, gathered at 8.50pm at the Penang Road/Kimberley Road junction, under the watchful eyes of Big Brother. A couple of dozen police personnel were present, too close for comfort. According to a source at the scene, quite a few others in plainclothes were loitering about, apart from about 20 reporters covering the event.
The police did not allow those gathered to use a loud-hailer or to read out their declaration in three languages. They even blamed them for causing traffic congestion! So, the small crowd was ordered to disperse but not before these concerned Malaysian broke out in song – “We shall overcome”.
Total vigil time allowed – 20 minutes.
As the Aliran executive committee said, in a statement condemning the ISA arrests, the BN has criminalised all our freedoms.
We cannot walk as a group, we cannot put up a banner on our own building, we cannot have access to information, we cannot challenge any ministerial decisions in any court of law, we cannot have a reasonable campaign period prior to election, we cannot have equal radio and TV time for all registered political parties to reach out to citizens to explain party policies, we cannot have a licence as a matter of right to publish. Our basic fundamental rights and freedoms have all been taken away through subsidiary laws and regulations. We are reminded by what was said way back in 163 BC: Extreme law is often extreme injustice.
But we shall overcome.
No matter how dark the night might be, all it takes is a single candle to break through the darkness.
Imagine, the authorities are afraid of a candle-light vigil! That says a lot. It suggests a government that is afraid of its own shadows – shadows dancing on the wall, as the people pour into the streets, like a sea of candles, flames flickering and illuminating the dark, musty corridors of power.
The ISA arrests today mark a new low in the administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. It is the first time that Abdullah has used the ISA against prominent critics of his adminstration. It also reveals that the government has run out of ideas, unable or unwilling to tackle the root causes of the problems that plague the people.
Earlier this evening, I received a phone call from an angry Indian Malaysian – furious with the ISA arrests, angry with the government-controlled media and certain columnists who have demonised Hindraf or played down their grievances, frustrated with the more affluent non-Tamil Indian Malaysians (Punjabis, Gujeratis, Malayalis, etc) for not sympathising with Tamil Malaysians. He told me there are many other Indian Malaysians who are ready to follow the Hindraf Five into the Kamunting detention centre.
His tone was one of anger and defiance. He could not accept that the Hindraf leaders’ poor choice of words had weakened the way they had articulated their legitimate grievances and exposed them to criticism.
From what he said, it appears that the Hindraf movement is largely Tamil-based and includes sympathisers from a small group of wealthier Tamil Malaysians. Even though these sympathisers may be better off now, they remember how hard it was for them to escape from the cycle of poverty, he said.
I suggested to him that the movement should broaden its worldview to perceive the struggle for justice in broader, more multi-ethnic terms – for the issues of marginalisation, exploitation and oppression cut across all ethnic groups. I reminded him of the Penan displaced from their native customary land, the poor indigenous communities living in the interior areas of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Malays on the east coast of the peninsula – who ironically remain poor despite the considerable offshore oil reserves in these regions.
But his frustration and anger over the grievances was so palpable that he could not see beyond ethnic boundaries for now – though he did tell me he would like to see the Bersih and Hindraf movements coming together.
Meanwhile, there is a crisis of democracy – a crisis because the BN government has become increasingly afraid of people on the move. It has resorted to brandishing the familiar ISA, which by its own admission, would only be used as a “last resort”. That “last resort” point has been reached. Now what?