Tale of two gatherings

This past week saw several different yet, from my point of view, important gatherings of people standing up for what they believe in. I want to write a little bit about two gatherings in particular, and highlight what we may (hopefully) learn from each.

Friday, Feb 24  – About a hundred Umno, BN, and Perkasa members gathered outside the PKR headquarters at about 4pm, with the intention of delivering a memorandum to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim protesting his recent comments in a newspaper about politics in the Middle East.

The memorandum, handover, was not announced to the public, and I myself had only learnt of it via SMSes sent by concerned individuals.

Thousands turn  up at the MPK 4 field in Kuantan to rally against the setting up of the Lynas Corp rare earth refinery plant in nearby Gebeng.

After verifying the news, I made my way to the PKR headquarters in Merchant Square to observe, monitor, and tweet about the event (in fact, some members of the media only found out about the gathering after reading tweets about it later).

It was a rowdy affair. The gathering began about 150m away from the HQ, and they marched up to about 30m from the entrance. Shouts of “Hancur, hancur!”, “Takbir!” and the occasional unsavoury permutation filled the air; banners declaring Anwar to be this and that were unfurled and carried along at the head of the gathering; even the actual delivery of the memorandum – which no one officially received as everyone was in Kuantan for a retreat – was punctuated with shouts of “Ambik lah!”.

After the memorandum was left at the entrance, some of the hot-headed Umno-BN-Perkasa members appeared unsatisfied, and started calling some of the PKR members who were present names that is fortunately unfit for print (clue: something about being a dog, and your mother’s … ).

Thankfully the police stepped in and stood in between them, so nothing untoward happened. Not long after, the gathering dispersed.

Sunday, Feb 26 – Depending on who you read, between 5,000 and 15,000 people turned up at the MPK 4 field in Kuantan to rally against the setting up of the Lynas Corp rare earth refinery plant in nearby Gebeng.

The gathering, called ‘Himpunan Hijau 2.0’ after the first gathering on Oct 10, 2011, was to manifest the on-going protest of Malaysians against the potentially ecologically-catastrophic refinery, slated to begin operations in June.

Unlike many previous public gatherings – Bersih 2.0, most notably – Himpunan Hijau 2.0 was not barred from taking place, although the local authorities did mischievously shift the venue two days prior (the original field was dug up and fenced for “upgrading” reasons), and the police laid down 12 conditions on the organisers within 24 hours of the gathering.

Nonetheless, the gathering took place without a hitch and with much fanfare.

In fact, there were multiple Himpunan Hijau 2.0 locations: in KL (Maju Junction – 2,000 attendees), Penang (Padang Kota – 500), and several others.

Only the event in Penang, based on tweets, faced some thuggish obstacles – basically disruptive behaviour by some Mat Rempit.

Otherwise, Himpunan Hijau 2.0 took place without a single untoward incident to its credit.

Now, what, if any, are the key learning points from comparing the two? While not definitive, I propose the following:
* Peaceful public gatherings, no matter the purpose, are a right as declared in our Federal Constitution – as such, all Malaysians irrespective of (political) affiliations have the right to exercise this fundamental liberty.

* The act of mobilisation (calling others to the gathering) is in itself a political act – do you declare to the public ahead of time, or do you send out clandestine SMSes to rally? How the attendees are called out reveals the thinking of the organisers – something last-minute is either an emergency gathering or an afterthought!

* The language used by the organisers and the attendees reveals the spirit of the gathering – are those in attendance civil or juvenile?

Those are but some thoughts that crossed my mind when comparing the two gatherings. Hopefully there will be many more (peaceful ones, especially), so that these ideas may be refined, corrected, or supplemented in the near future.

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