Recent events such as Bersih 2.0, the Bar Council’s march to protest the Peaceful Assembly Bill (PAB) 2011, and the students demonstrating against the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) amendment, have spawned a debate on whether civil disobedience and the rule of law can co-exist in a democratic system such as ours.
A recent write up by a senior lawyer in an English daily opined that this debate is irreconcilable at its heart and civil disobedience usually constitutes a minority who impose their will on the law abiding majority.
The writer also argued that the act of civil disobedience, if it goes unpunished, would lead to chaos and anarchy in society.
The act of civil disobedience itself is tantamount to one breaking the law; it is a criminal conduct “regardless of how novel is the motive of the civil disobedient.”
And with a clear reference to Malaysia, the act of civil disobedience, according to the writer, is only a political tool used by politicians and civil rights movement to justify their violation of laws.
One however can argue that in a democratic society, one has no choice but to follow the laws and regulations that govern the sanctioned society, after all, a duly elected representative or lawmaker has been given the mandate by the people to legislate laws for the good of society and country.
We are therefore assuming, without a benefit of a doubt, that such lawmakers would know what is best for all of us.
Drawbacks of representational democracy
This is indeed very alarming since what is good for a particular ruling government is not necessarily good for the people.
And if a particular law is passed by the legislator who is merely voting according to political party guidelines, then there is a possibility that certain laws could be passed that would oppress and cause injustices to the people who are the foundation of any democratic state.
This is one of the drawbacks of representational democracy as the passing of certain laws are sometimes not done with the interests of the people in mind but done in the interest of consolidating the power of a political party.
If this is so, could the people then show their dissent or dissatisfaction through civil disobedience?
One would most probably use the clichéd solution of showing one’s dissatisfaction through the ballot box (elections) which incidentally happens every five years.
Would one then wait once every five years just to show one’s displeasure at what is happening to society and country?
Could the act of civil disobedience itself, bolster and propagate a more democratic nation to the powers-that-be?
The answer is a resounding “yes” because gone are the days when laws are passed and citizens of a country have no choice but to obey such laws.
This is more so in the 20th and 21st century where oppressive regimes and dictatorial states that had used the police and military to clamp down on societal dissent, often ended with bloody consequences.
Is civil disobedience a crime?
Would civil disobedience then be construed as a criminal act against a corrupt and oppressive state even though it is perceived to be a democratic nation?
History of the struggle of mankind for freedom and truth (not necessarily for democracy) has shown that civil disobedience is the budding blossom that complements and strengthens the process of democratic governance, and a democratic government has a duty to listen to legitimate dissenting views and issues brought forward by its people.
The key word here is legitimate, and one does not need a very justifiable and most exceptional reason to be involved in civil disobedience.
The Bukit Asahan Long March of 1967 and the Baling protest of 1974 are two clear examples civilians took part to fight for the rights of oppressed groups, to protest again unjust laws, corruption, the poor, and against oppressive stakeholders.
Civil disobedience can never be practiced in the extreme because it would then be known as a mob or a riot.
The rioting in London early this year, for instance, is not a form of civil disobedience because rioters do not have a legitimate cause in their action.
The mob and rioters were the main cause for the looting chaos, robberies, assaults on the police force, the torching and burning of cars and buildings in London.
Civil disobedience groups meanwhile, are well organized, have a particular aim and are usually a coalition of civil rights movements, non-partisan groups, non-governmental organizations, and even political parties.
Over-zealousness and a threat to use violence is never a part of civil disobedience groups or movements because they are a legitimate group, voicing a legitimate cause, on a legitimate issue.
To associate civil disobedience with the rioting in London or to say that it would cause anarchy, chaos, anarchy, tyranny, confusion, the toppling of governments, the destruction of nation, society, would be an insult to any right thinking individual with a conscience.
Hence, since there are only very few right thinking with such qualities as the above, they will always be the minority.
People are listening
It is always the silent majority who will ride on the efforts of the tiny majority on issues pertaining to the individual, society, country, the economy or the environment.
For this majority who most often agree in principle with civil disobedience issues, it is far easier to let this minority “fight it out” with the powers-that-be than to physically participate in protest marches.
Perhaps, at the end of the day, the issue is not really about civil disobedience, but with “civil obedience.”
The fact that society responds with such acts of civil disobedience proves that the people are listening and actively exercising their rights in a thriving democracy that allows spaces for negotiation.
The last thing we would ever want, in a democracy, are muted and law-abiding citizens who do not know why they are abiding laws in the first place, which of course leads to the entrenchment of power and the hegemony of the state over the individual.
Perhaps it is rightly for Time Magazine to honour “The Protestor” as person of the year for 2011.
What would life be if there is no dissent and no one to take up causes for the minority, the downtrodden, the marginalized or even for the masses?