peaceful assembly

The next Russia? Malaysia weighs harsh policies cracking down on gay events

Women's march LGBTQ protests Malaysia
Photo by Himavarthiniy Easwaran

The Malaysian government is mulling harsh anti-LGTBQ policies that would bring the country in line with discriminatory laws on the books in Russia and Egypt.

On March 9, LGBTQ Malaysians joined local feminist groups to call for an end to child marriages and gender discrimination in the majority Muslim country of 31 million. In conjunction with International Women’s Day events held across the globe, thousands marched from the Sogo KL shopping mall to the Sultan Abdul Samad building in Independence Square with rainbow-colored signs reading “You Are Not Alone” and “We Exist.”

The displays were quickly met with open hostility by conservative members of Malaysia’s government. Datuk Seri Mujahid Yusof Rawa, who made international headlines last year after removing the portraits of queer people from an art exhibit, called the event “a misuse of democratic space.”

“I am shocked by the actions of a handful of people today who abuse the democratic space to defend practices that are against Islamic teachings,” he said in a Facebook post.

Malaysian women's march LGBTQ
Photo by Himavarthiniy Easwaran

Malaysia is one of more than 70 countries where homosexuality remains illegal. Individuals accused of same-sex intercourse face up to 20 years in prison, as well as fines or corporal punishment. Two women were publicly caned last year after being charged with “attempting lesbian sex.”

In light of the country’s century-old colonial laws, Malaysian officials may take their campaign against equality even further. This week Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced that the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 will be revised in light of the controversy. That law requires event organizers to notify local police 10 days before a gathering is scheduled to take place.

Local news outlets reported the government will tighten restrictions on public gatherings by changing the application requirements. Under the Peaceful Assembly Act, authorities no longer have to sign off on rallies and protests held in Malaysia, although that courtesy is not always granted. Mujahid claimed the International Women’s Day march would not have been authorized by police if officials knew it would be used to “promote” equality.

“As I have said before this, the government is very firm that LGBTQ practices will not be accepted at all in this country,” the Islamic affairs minister wrote on Facebook. “How is it possible that we recognize an act that is wrong in law?”

Mujahid warned the home ministry will “take firm action” against this kind of protest and assembly, but Tan has remained tight-lipped about changes to the Peaceful Assembly Act. It’s unclear how the amendments will be put forward or if he plans to go through the Parliament of Malaysia to introduce them.

“Just wait for it,” the minister told reporters earlier this week. “Let it be a surprise.”

The Danger of Restricting Rights

Any proposed amendments to the Peaceful Assembly Act have triggered grave concerns among Malaysians that the seven-year-old law will be used to target and even criminalize queer and trans advocacy following numerous attacks on the community in the past year.

Martin Choo, general manager of Kuala Lumpur AIDS Support Services Society, told Queerty that restricting free assembly breeds “fear and distrust” of marginalized people.

“Peaceful protest is a function of a healthy democracy,” said Choo, who previously worked as a consultant for the World Health Organization (WHO) on issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. “Curtailing this ability to appease one group over another is a worrying sign for any group. What is there to stop any government from doing the same at a later stage to other groups?”

Related: Here are reminders of all the anti-gay horrors in Russia that Trump sanctioned

Activist Numan Afifi further warned that rolling back queer and trans rights would incite “harassment, intimidation, and hate towards LGBTQ persons and issues.”

“Such incitement to hate and violence needs a strong stance by the government to defend the rights of all persons, in particular, those who are already marginalized and persecuted,” Numan, who also serves as president of the advocacy group Pelangi Campaign, said in an email to Queerty.

But what makes any revision of the Peaceful Assembly Act particularly dangerous is the vague definition of what constitutes an “assembly,” according to Asia Regional Coordinator OutRight Action International Grace Poore. Poore told Queerty that the language doesn’t state whether it solely applies to a “moving assembly,” as in a march; a “stationery assembly,” like a rally in a public park; or a “gathering of people,” such as a private community event.

“It doesn’t specify,” she said, “which means the law can be used very broadly.”

Should the law be applied in a blanket fashion, it could then be used to outlaw anything from a public protest of the government’s homophobic policies to a meeting of organizers and activists in someone’s home.

Although Poore said the Peaceful Assembly Act was introduced to give minority groups greater license to lobby on their behalf, its introduction has already proven extremely problematic. For instance, failing to meet the 10-day notification requirement comes with a fine of 10,000 Malaysian Ringgit, which is nearly $2,500 in U.S. dollars.

“The law puts restrictions on organizing and also a restriction on the people who are participating,” Poore claimed. “People who show up for a peaceful assembly are at risk of being arrested, being fined, or being jailed.”

Yet Another Attack on Malaysians

If Deputy Home Minister Datuk Mohd Azis Jamman’s recent comments that amendments to Peaceful Assembly Act will clamp down on issues viewed as “sensitive” to religious groups, the country could follow in the footsteps of Russia and Egypt. These countries have used similar laws to crack down on virtually any public semblance of queer and trans life.

After it was unanimously passed by the Russian Duma in 2013, Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law has been used to ban Pride events across the country. Hate crimes have doubled since then. Meanwhile, enforcement of Egypt’s defunct 1962 law forbidding “debauchery” was used to arrest dozens of people for waving rainbow flags at a September 2017 concert. More recently, an Egyptian TV anchor was sentenced to a year in prison for interviewing a gay man on air.

In some ways, that campaign has already begun in Malaysia. In August 2018, the Kuala Lumpur gay bar Blue Boy was raided by police, with the Federal Territory ministry claiming the arrests were intended to “stop the spread of LGBTQ culture in society.” Multiple transgender women have been beaten, hospitalized, and even killed by violent mobs in recent months.

Although the new ruling coalition promised reform when it was voted in last year, the government continues to deny LGBTQ people even exist. Earlier this month Tourism Minister Datuk Mohamaddin Ketapi drew outrage after claiming that there are no queer or trans people in Malaysia.

“I don’t think we have anything like that in our country,” he told the German outlet Deutsche Welle at an international travel conference.

Activists plan to oppose further attacks by sounding the alarm to global human rights organizations. On Tuesday, Numan told Queerty he planned to give a speech to the United Nations this week urging intervention on behalf of queer and transgender people who are being singled out by their own government.

“NGOs are allowed to speak for two minutes each as part of the Country Human Rights review,” he said. “It’s Malaysia’s turn this time.”

After the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled last year that Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law violated international treaties on human rights, Amnesty International warned that any action to “make it harder for the LGBTQ community to peacefully assembly or freely express themselves… would be deeply discriminatory.”

In an email to Queerty, Asia-Pacific Advocacy Manager Francisco Bensome said the rights of every minority group “should be respected just like any other member of society.”