Gay Rally Banned in Malaysia

Once again, the Malaysian government appears to daring public opinion by banning a rally. On Nov. 2, the police prohibited a five-day festival that had been scheduled to begin on Nov. 9 by Seksualiti Merdeka, a coalition promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex individuals that has been held in Kuala Lumpur since 2008.

As almost everything does in Malaysia, the issue has turned into a political football, with Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the leaders of the Bersih 2.0 rally that police blocked in Kuala Lumpur in July, now one of the leaders of the Seksualiti Merdeka (translated loosely as “sexual independence”) festival. Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim has also criticized the government for issuing the ban.

But despite the fact that Malaysia has been transfixed for years by explicit and lurid sexual allegations in trial courts against Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and by a long series of publicly aired sex scandals on the part of political leaders, the country remains relative ly conservative, with an ethnic Malay Muslim majority population.

Parti Islam seMalaysia, or PAS, the fundamentalist rural-based Islamic member of the opposition coalition, has come out against the festival, which was scheduled to last until Sunday. So has Perkasa, the right-wing pressure group that advocates ethnic Malay political superiority. In all, more than 150 police reports have been filed by religious bodies and individuals demanding that the festival be prohibited.

The rally’s organizers, in a press release, quoted former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as saying that “We don't need this sexuality thing. We don't need men marrying men, women marrying women and blatant exhibitionists here.”

Nonetheless, gay holiday directories say Malaysia “has a thriving gay scene (perhaps Southeast Asia’s most exciting) which, while still mostly underground, is basically tolerated by the live-and-let-live attitude of its people.” Several gay sites on the Internet show pictures of scores of gay men partying fiercely away in Kuala Lumpur.

Thus it remains to be seen which side will win the public relations battle. The planners complained in a prepared news release that “public officials and politicians have made inflammatory statements about SM, and the police have announced that they will detain anyone that participates in any such events on grounds including the disturbance of public order and threats to national security.”

Why now?

‘I think prior to this it was low profile,” said a United Malays National Organization lawyer in Kuala Lumpur. “I had never heard of it before. This time around they wanted to do it bigger, and they got Ambiga to support them. That means Bersih. That means news.”

Malaysia suffered a gigantic international black eye in July when police closed down Kuala Lumpur and arrested 1,667 mostly peaceful marchers supporting Bersih (clean) 2.0, a coalition of 62 reform organizations backed by opposition parties that are seeking electoral reform, blasting them with tear gas and water cannons.

That appeared to be a misstep. Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s popularity ratings dropped to 59 percent after the attacks on marchers. In August, Najib, clearly on the defensive, announced he was forming a parliamentary committee to seek to reform the electoral system, and later held press conferences to announce that he intended to reform the country’s detested Internal Security Act, which allows for indeterminate detention without trial, and to loosen press restrictions as well.

As with the Bersih rally, the organizers of Seksualiti Merdeka have called on aid from the international community. Human Rights Watch has sent a letter to Najib, demanding that he rescind the ban on the event. The Global Forum on MSM & HIV, the PT Foundation, the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health and other organizations also demand that authorities to lift the ban on the event, which was to be called ‘“Queer without Fear.”

Front Line, an international foundation for the protection of human rights defenders, also issued a press release, calling for the Malaysian authorities to retract the ban and “declare the festival's importance, legality and validity as a legitimate event aiming to promote human rights;”

Front line also demanded that government officials or other public figures refrain from making statements or declaration stigmatizing the legitimate work of human rights defenders, that it guarantee the physical and psychological integrity and security of the organizers and members and :”guarantee in all circumstances that all human rights defenders in Malaysia, especially those working on LGBTI issues, are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals and free of all undue restrictions.”