On Saturday, July 31st, Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat organised the #Lawan rally, scheduled to be held at Dataran Merdeka. The protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, a full Parliament sitting, and a moratorium on the repayment of all loans.
Prior to the rally, the organisers and participants of the #Lawan fight were subjected to consistent intimidation and harassment since July 25 following their actions in Dataran Merdeka on July 17 and a convoy on July 24. This included the following:
- July 25 – 13 activists were called in for investigations at various district police stations, including at Brickfields district police headquarters (IPD), Sepang IPD and Malacca Tengah IPD.
- July 26 – 10 activists and protesters were called in for investigations at various district police stations, including at Brickfields IPD, Dang Wangi IPD, and Kajang IPD.
- July 27 – three activists, namely Wan Shakila, Nu’man Shaharman and Umar Azmi, who were called the day before, were called again to the Brickfields IPD for investigations.
- July 28 – one activist was arrested and released on police bail and another two were called in for their second investigation.
- July 29 – the co-founder of MISI Solidariti, Sarah Irdina Mohammad Ariff, was arrested under the Sedition Act 1948 and her home raided. She was held at the Jinjang police station and was released at 12.30am on July 30.
- July 29 – three activists – Muhammad Alshatri, Tharma Pillai and Afiq Adib – were called to the Dang Wangi police headquarters and investigated regarding a protest that is planned on July 31 and social media postings calling for the resignation of the prime minister, the reconvening of Parliament and the ending of the emergency.
Civil society organisations working on freedom of expression were on the ground to monitor the protest on the 31st, and the state actions surrounding it. Here is some of what we documented that day:
10am – 11am: Police set up extensive roadblocks, blocking protest & asking for disperse. Heavy police presence on site – not always clearly identified.
10:13AM: Police barricading entry points to Dataran. Many in plainclothes, some in vests. Protestors observing SOPs are continuing to march. Police should facilitate, not obstruct.
10.30am: Police taking photos and videos of protestors with their phones. We have a right to protest without fear or intimidation.
11 – 11.40am: PDRM helicopter hovering. Also spotted 1 drone (unknown origin). Surveillance tactics & technology is often used to intimidate and threaten protestors. Defend our right to privacy at all times.
Police obstruction tactics often cause disruption in peaceful protests, including SOP plans. Barricades impact ability to move in planned route. Low flying choppers create chaos in sound area. Facilitate, not obstruct.
12pm: Sit-in protest happening at the intersection of Jalan Parlimen and Jalan Tun Perak. Despite barricades and low flying chopper, energy still seems high.
12.15-12.30: Ongoing #Lawan protest continues to be peaceful and orderly. Speeches ongoing. Video clip from team on the ground.
12.35pm: Organisers asking protestors to disperse & follow SOP. Leave slowly & peacefully, maintain social distancing.
Civil society organisations working on freedom of expression stand in solidarity with and applaud the organisers of the #Lawan rally for a peaceful and organised protest on 31 July 2021. We condemn the investigation and arrest of protest organisers prior to the event, the authorities’ obstruction of the protest by setting roadblocks and barricades, and the police threats to take action against participants.
Protest organisers took proactive steps and issued detailed guidelines on COVID-19 SOPs, including requiring protesters to double mask, social distance, not share placards and sanitise their hands. To uphold the fundamental right of peaceful assembly while appreciating the gravity of the current pandemic, the police should have worked with the organisers to facilitate the protest. By barricading access to Dataran Merdeka, the police in fact made it more difficult to comply with COVID-19 SOPs by forcing protesters onto the road.
Our observers also noted excessive police presence in vehicles and on foot, including several armed police officers, the presence of a Black Maria vehicle and a low-flying helicopter. Police officers in uniform and in plain clothes were also taking photographs and videos of protesters. These constitute intimidatory tactics that inhibit protesters’ right to peacefully assemble and, again, serve to obstruct rather than facilitate their peaceful protest. Surveillance of protesters impacts their freedom of expression and may also deter others from exercising this right.
Freedom of assembly and expression are fundamental rights, and essential in ensuring government efficacy and accountability. These rights must be protected and upheld, and the pandemic cannot be used as a pretext to prevent people from exercising these important rights.