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Media statement by Charles Santiago in Klang on Wednesday, 30th November 2011:

ASEANs new basket case?

While there is a flicker of progress in Myanmar, the light of democracy has been crushed in Malaysia. And it happened in Parliament, as the UMNO-led ruling Barisan Nasional government muscled its way to bulldoze the Peaceful Assembly Bill.

The parliament saw the play of a lethal game as only three opposition lawmakers were allowed to debate the Bill while the the BN and government-friendly lawmakers whined down their razzle-dazzle debates supporting the new piece of legislation.

Earlier this morning, hundreds of lawyers staged the "Walk for Freedom" march to register their opposition to the Bill which is repressive, encroaches into the civil liberties of the people and violates the Federal Constitution.

It is a rare protest as lawyers do not take to the streets in a whim and fancy. But when they walk, it is a slap on the face of the government as it caricatures the lack of democracy and poor governance.

There has been a significant change in Myanmar after the military handed over power to a nominal civilian government last November. No one could deny that releasing the country's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was a big step forward.

Since then, the new government has reached out to her, allowed for street protests, called for peace with ethnic minorities, freed some 230 political prisoners and suspended a highly-suspect Chinese-funded dam project.

In Cambodia there has been concerted effort by the government to weed-out corruption, empower women politically and institute electoral reforms.

We, in direct contrast, are moving backward by curbing the civil liberties of the people. Prime minister Najib Tun Razak, addicted to his flip-flop policies, has gone back on his promise of reforms in the country.

In September, Najib scrapped Section 27 of the Police Act that requires a permit before holding rallies. It was, however, replaced with the more repressive Peaceful Assembly Bill with unacceptable restrictions on freedom of assembly, association and expression ĘC the fundamental principles in a democracy.

The new Bill outlaws all street protests, forces the organizers to give a 10 day notice to the police, regulates, restricts and imposes conditions on an assembly and prohibits anyone under the age of 15 from taking part.

Furthermore, protesters could be slapped with a RM 20,000 fine while organizers who failed to give sufficient notice would be fined RM 10,000.

We will see the play out of this controversial policy in the next weeks and months. We will witness further clamping down of dissent, persecution of opposition politicians and an erosion of civil rights and liberties in the country.

In the lives of ordinary people, we will see tractors bulldozing down their sweat and blood as they are powerless to protest against corrupt contractors and an equally corrupt police force. We will see the voice of the poor being muffled even further.

Is this the future we envision for our country?

Yes, the Peaceful Assembly Bill is unconstitutional and unfair. But could the government win? To answer this question with a resounding NO, we need the rakyat to exercise their right at the ballot boxes to vote out a corrupt regime.

* Charles Santiago, MP for Klang



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