Bicycling with the Police in Malaysia

What should be a pleasant if sweaty ride through nearly 400 kilometers of rubber and oil palm can be anything but if Malaysia's police are on your trail. And they were – out in force against a handful of riders, 30 of them kids, who had taken a bus south from Kuala Lumpur for a human rights bike ride sponsored by Jerit, or the Network of Oppressed People.

The ride, of about 50 people, mostly ethnic Indians, was supposed to start in Skudai, a Johor Bahru suburb, at 8:30 am on December 6 but it was almost immediately interrupted when police appeared outside the headquarters of Suaram (The People’s Voice), a non-government organization. If one of the basic precepts of military engagement is to make sure you have overwhelming firepower against the enemy, the police succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

The riders’ purpose was a quirky protest by a small non-governmental organization for a flock of liberal social causes -- protection of workers caught in the global financial crisis, agitation for minimum wage legislation, the restoration of local government elections, abolition of the draconian Internal Security act, which allows for detention without trial, a plea for decent public housing and an end to the continuing privatization of basic state-owned facilities.

A long-distance bicycle ride, in Malaysia’s jungle heat and humidity, is rare indeed. After spending the night at a tuition center atop a nearby shop, we were to get on our way to eventually meet on December 18 with cyclists on the northern leg, who started from Kedah, at the Parliament in Kuala Lumpur to hand over the list of demands to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. There was a momentary bit of excitement when our group was confused with another threatening to stage a nude bike ride somewhere else.

Skudai is like any other Chinese-majority area in Malaysia with its mossy rows of double-storey shop lots. A crowd of mostly Chinese were having breakfast at Chinese and Indian Muslim (mamak) coffee shops located at a corner. Traffic was heavy and cars filled parking bays in front of the shops. But last Saturday, to our amazement, police trucks circled the vicinity with a couple parked near the Suaram office, with a roadblock erected about 50 meters away. About 30 uniformed policemen were scattered about and other plainclothes policemen blended in. Were there international criminals lurking about?

About 10 minutes later, a coordinator for Suaram found me where I was downloading pictures from my laptop and told me the police would begin arresting people. About five minutes later, concern rising in his voice, he came up to say the Jerit coordinator for the Southern leg, S. Arutchelvan, who is also secretary-general of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM, Socialist Party of Malaysia), and V Selvam, PSM central committee member, had been arrested, and that the police were threatening to break the grill door with a pair of massive pliers if we didn’t open up.

I contacted the Deputy Inspector-General of Police, Ismail Omar, to ask if he was aware that his officers in Johor were threatening forced entry. He said he had to check the case and "there must be a good reason" that the police wanted to break in.

He has since reportedly said that the campaign was illegal as Jerit had not applied for police permits to hold "gatherings" and "parades," which is what the police were calling the cycling group, and that Jerit is also unregistered and flouted the law.

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"This group has organized a series of rallies and mass gatherings without our approval as well as allowing children to take part in their campaigns," he said Saturday, adding that "a few politicians have been exploiting the campaign for their own interests."

Jerit maintained that cycling does not require a permit and that freedom of assembly is a constitutional guarantee, although the Police Act deems a group of three or more as an assembly requiring a permit. "We don't apply for permits," Aru said yesterday.

The next thing I knew, the police came in and demanded our Malaysian identity cards. Nyam Kee Han, the 25-year-old Suaram coordinator, was arrested along with two volunteers. In total, Jerit said, 16 people would be arrested that day. The rest of us, including over 30 teenagers as young as 13 and some Jerit coordinators, were not allowed to leave the premises. I was refused when I asked the police guarding the door if I could go out for a cigarette.

"We are effectively under house arrest," Y Kohila, JERIT secretariat coordinator said.

Everyone was released before noon but the cyclists were barred from cycling in the Skudai district. Outside Skudai, we were then told that we could not cycle because it might endanger the children. So the adult organisers cycled, only to be stopped by traffic police and summoned for not having light reflectors – an offence for which half the bicyclists in Johor could be charged.

The police didn’t stop there. The special branch followed us, often taking photographs and videos of us. "It's just intimidation," Kohila said.

After an action-packed first day, we thought the second day in Kluang, up the road, would be better. Distributing leaflets to the public about their campaign and gathering signatures, however, seemed to be another no-no. Two Suaram volunteers were arrested at the Kluang Parade shopping mall. I was also brought into the Kluang police headquarters for snapping photos without my press card. The police accused me of lying about being a journalist but refused to call my editor to verify my status. In the end, after sitting around the Criminal Investigations Department, with a poster of prime ministers that did not include Badawi on the wall, the police let us go and even offered to drop us back.

Our comrades up north didn't fare any better. Some bikes were burnt when a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the compound of Yayasan Aman, a charity connected to Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, in Penang. Even D Jeyakumar, was arrested. He is an opposition member of parliament who defeated the long-serving president of the Malaysian Indian Congress, S. Samy Vellu.

"Why are the police hell-bent in wanting to stop this peaceful campaign which is undertaken on behalf of the people and for the good of the people?” P Ramakrishnan, the president of the reform organization Aliran, asked in a prepared statement. “Where is the threat and who is being threatened by this endeavour that is aimed at compelling the Barisan Government to focus on the real issues affecting the people instead of indulging in politics to perpetuate their power?"

The Malaysia Bar Council agreed. “The police are not being fully utilised for crime prevention when they are asked to stop and arrest (the campaigners) throughout the country,” said Ambiga Sreenasvasan, the organization’s president. “The Bar Council finds this to be unacceptable as crimes are increasing every day, and yet the authorities are using the police (against) youth who are exercising their civil rights,"

At press time, the cyclists were about 20 kilometers south of Kuala Lumpur and their goal, where they were met last night by songs and dancing by residents in a local low-cost flat development – and by the police, who have been following them throughout the ride, and who detained them again today, this time to investigate whether the kids had their parents’ consent. They have fixed their light reflectors, however, and no longer appear to form an outsized threat to the state. They plan to make their goal of handing over the letter to Abdullah Badawi Thursday — if the 50 are deemed not to be a force that might bring about the immediate collapse of the government.