CIVICUS interviews Andrew Khoo, Co-Chairperson of the Malaysian Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee

Andrew Khoo, the Co-Chairperson of Malaysian Bar Council's Human Rights Committee (BCHRC), speaks to CIVICUS about the growing restrictions on civil society and obstacles to realizing UPR recommendations in Malaysia.

How would you describe the overall operating environment for civil society in Malaysia? What are the main challenges faced by civil society?

We have seen the overall operating environment for civil society in Malaysia deteriorate significantly in recent years. The government has increasingly responded to criticism from civil society organisations (CSOs) with unwarranted and targeted restrictions. The most common tactics employed by the government to obstruct the work of dissenting groups include unsolicited accounting and tax audits, unjustified inspections to check compliance with registration requirements, questioning of organizational staff and demands for confidential documents and warrantless seizures of equipment and records.

While CSOs in Malaysia are permitted to receive foreign funding, the authorities routinely level unfounded accusation that CSOs which receive international support are agents of foreign governments working to undermine the sovereign interests of the country or national security in Malaysia. CSOs are also subjected to slander and smear campaigns in the media. The government-controlled press regularly accuses CSOs of being enemies of the state or enemies of Islam.

The Bar Council has been subjected to a number of threats and harassment, including demonstrations outside our offices and petty vandalism. Political parties and a number of CSOs encourage the government to intentionally weaken the independence of CSOs operating in the country.

The government recently passed the Peaceful Assembly Act, essentially criminalizing public demonstrations in the country. Can you tell us a bit about the major restrictions under law? What has been the practical impact of the law on freedom of assembly?

Notwithstanding its name, the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) appears purposely designed to limit and frustrate the free exercise of the right to freedom of assembly.

While the Malaysian Bar successfully mobilized civil society to oppose the government's initial proposal in 2011 and some positive amendments were made to the bill as a result of this resistance, the final bill which came into force on 23 April 2012, places a number of unwarranted restrictions on holding peaceful demonstrations.

Of critical concern are provisions which outlaw street demonstrations and further allow the police to impose extensive terms and conditions on other forms of peaceful assembly. The law criminalizes public assemblies within 50 metres of specific buildings and structures, referred to as "prohibited places," which denies potential protestors from accessing high-profile spaces which could attract large groups.

A number of unjustified restrictions are also placed on who can take part in a demonstration. Children under 15 years of age are prohibited from taking part in public assemblies, while children under 18 years are prohibited from organising a public assembly. Under the law, a person who shares information about a public assembly can be deemed an organiser.

The government has also been quick to arrest and charge persons suspected of breaching the PAA. In August 2013, the government charged four persons with violating the PAA. Two of the defendants, the organisers of the "Green Gathering" rally, face fines over USD 3,000. The two other individuals were charged with bringing underage persons to the rally and if found guilty can be fined over USD 6,000.

Moreover, following general elections on 5 May 2013, opposition political parties organised a series of rallies known as "Black 505" to protest the election results. According to press reports, a total of 43 persons have been charged for violating the PAA in relation to the rallies.

Malaysia underwent its second examination under the UN Universal Period Review (UPR) on October 24th in Geneva. To what extent has the government made good on its commitments to create an enabling environment for civil society since its initial UPR review in 2009?

The Malaysian government stated in its National Report that is has implemented all non-specific recommendations accepted during the 2009 UPR examination. However, in contrast to these claims, the government did not accept any recommendations committing to creating an enabling environment for civil society. The Malaysian government boasts that it held consultations with civil society in 2010, 2012 and 2013 on the UPR. However, such claims are misleading as the consultations were not aimed at engendering greater inclusivity into the UPR implementation and monitoring process. The March 2010 consultation, held 9 months after the examination, consisted simply of "reporting back" on the UPR examination. Moreover, the Malaysian Government did not issue a mid-term implementation report. As a result, no engagement with civil society took place to monitor or progressively review any implementation of accepted recommendations during the first review.

The first consultation in preparation for Malaysia's second UPR examination in 2013 took place on the least opportune day of the year, 29 December 2012. Many civil society groups were on year-end leave by then. In addition, a number of organisations, including Malaysia's National Human Rights Institution, complained that they only received their invitations after the consultation had taken place.

The second consultation took place on 3 May 2013, two days before Malaysia's general election. Many civil society groups were on the campaign trail, helping to sensitise people on the various election issues, and were unable to attend the consultation. The scheduling of the UPR consultations on two of the least auspicious days of the year puts into serious question the government's assertions that it wants to engage substantively with civil society in realizing the recommendations of the UPR.

How can regional and international civil society groups offer support to civil society in Malaysia?

Regional and international civil society groups can offer support to civil society in Malaysia by helping us to highlight issues of concern at the regional and international level. Apart from endorsing our campaigns, regional and international civil society groups can bring Malaysian issues to the attention of their networks, and to governments and international organisations around the world.

If regional and international civil society groups have contact with the Malaysian government, then use those channels to promote international human rights norms, standards and best practices. Issuing press releases and making interventions where appropriate in response to specific incidents and developments in Malaysia would also be helpful.

Invite us to speak at your conferences, seminars and workshops, help further train and develop our activists, extend their horizons so that they can become more effective both at home and abroad.

Andrew Khoo is the Co-Chairperson of Malaysian Bar Council's Human Rights Committee (BCHRC). The Malaysian Bar is the regulatory and representative body of practising advocates and solicitors in Malaysia. It currently has over 15,000 members and carries out is activities through a full-time Secretariat of approximately 80 people, and through around 40 practice-area committees. The BCHRC works with civil society on joint projects to promote knowledge of the law and address pressing human rights issues in the country

Interview conducted on 1 November 2013