KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA — The #Lawan protest scheduled to take place on Saturday (21 August) has been called off after Muhyiddin Yassin announced his resignation from the Prime Minister post on Monday.
Organisers Sekretariat Solidariti Rakyat (SSR) said in a statement on Thursday that Muhyiddin’s decision to step down “is a victory for the people of Malaysia who have held him responsible for the 13,000 lives who fell as a result of the government’s failure to contain the COVID-19 situation under his leadership”.
However, SSR stressed that the fight under #Lawan will not cease notwithstanding Muhyiddin’s resignation.
“The democratisation process as well as check and balance against the government must continue. We will not hesitate to act further if the new government that is to be formed fails to exercise its responsibility in ensuring that this country is free from the pandemic and shallow political turmoil,” said the group.
Previously, a large-scale protest was held on 30 July as part of the #Lawan campaign. ‘Lawan’ is the Malay word for ‘fight’ or ‘resist’.
Among the demands made in the campaign include Muhyiddin’s resignation and for Parliament sittings to continue, particularly after months of suspension since the start of the Emergency period in January.
Protesters clad in black outfits and masks peacefully marched through downtown Kuala Lumpur on the last day of July, despite being warned by the police against doing so on the eve of the protest.
The participants — mostly young Malaysians — that morning held up black flags as well as banners and placards condemning Muhyiddin’s administration over the government’s poor handling of the COVID-19 situation.
“KERAJAAN GAGAL” (“failed government”), “KERAJAAN PENIPU” (“liar government”), and “MISSING IN ACTION: ONLY TALKS THRU PDF” were among wordings seen on some of the placards — the last one referencing Muhyiddin’s frequent absence from the spotlight in times of crisis.
Astro Awani reported that those who participated in the protest on 30 July adhered to social distancing guidelines and standard operating procedures at all times.
Hours prior to the protest, roads leading up to Dataran Merdeka — where the protesters were originally slated to march from the Masjid Jamek LRT station — were shut off by the police.
During the protest itself, demonstrators were prevented by police from making their way to Dataran Merdeka, despite the organisers’ attempt to negotiate with the authorities.
Following that, demonstrators held a sit-in protest, where they were seen singing Negaraku — Malaysia’s national anthem — as well as making speeches and chanting their demands.
The protest reportedly ended around 1.30 pm after police instructed the protesters to disperse.
While the organisers estimated a turnout of around 1,000 people at the protest on 30 July, police said that the number of people who turned up was estimated to be only around 400.
In addition to the demand for Muhyiddin to step down from the PM post, health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah was also chastised for allegedly being a “puppet” of the government, according to a placard held by a protester.
On 13 August, Dr Noor Hisham announced that the Health Ministry did not discover any cluster originating from the #Lawan protest on 30 July, dispelling concerns from critics previously.
Dr Noor Hisham, who is frequently lauded for his leadership in Malaysia’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic, drew flak from members of the public for discouraging contract doctors from participating in a nationwide strike against the system.
Contract doctors across Malaysia’s public hospitals orchestrated a massive walkout on 26 July after Muhyiddin’s “half-baked” proposal to lengthen their contracts failed to placate their demands regarding their security of tenure.
The campaign previously saw a smaller-scale protest at Dataran Merdeka and convoys held prior to the street protest on 30 July.
In the smaller protest, several individuals representing SSR staged a flashmob of around 20 people at Dataran Merdeka.
14 black flags and a simulation of five “dead bodies” wrapped in white shrouds were displayed during the small protest to depict the increasing death toll as a result of COVID-19, including of suicides believed to be driven by dismal economic conditions and tight restrictions during the lockdown.
In a joint statement on 30 July, several civil society organisations said — in the wake of the police’s handling of the protest — that the pandemic “cannot be used as a pretext” to prevent people from exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.
“In recent weeks, Malaysia has experienced a soaring COVID-19 case load, overwhelmed hospitals and many deaths, while livelihoods have been threatened and lost. The government declared an emergency, imposed draconian laws and suspended Parliament.
“In a functioning democracy, and even during a pandemic, the people must be allowed to demand accountability from the government, including through peaceful protests adopting appropriate public health measures,” they said.
The statement was issued by Amnesty International Malaysia, ARTICLE 19, Centre for Independent Journalism, Freedom Film Network (FFN), Gerakan Media Merdeka (Geramm), Justice for Sisters, KRYSS Network, Sisters in Islam, and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM).
The organisations criticised the police’s obstruction of the protest via its roadblocks and barricades and its prior threats to pursue legal action against the organisers and the participants.
“Barring access to a public square constitutes a breach of the right to peaceful assembly.
“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,” they said.
They expressed concern about the “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,” the group said.
The groups also lambasted the police’s move to investigate and arrest the protest organisers prior to the event.
The societies urged the authorities to drop all investigations and charges against the organisers who were subject to those actions prior to the protest, and to refrain from initiating any criminal investigations, arrests or harassment against organisers and protesters who attended the protest on 30 July.