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18 Sep 06
An opposition party head and his supporters were allowed by police to walk to a busy intersection and distribute pamphlets calling for greater freedoms in a second turnaround by Singapore authorities.
‘It’s a step forward, a tiny victory,’ said Chee Siok Chin, sister of Chee Soon Juan, the leader of the group that has withstood thunderstorms, sleeping on the pavement and constant scrutiny of police since Saturday.
‘After hours of negotiations with police, they said we could walk in pairs to Raffles City, hand out the pamphlets to the public and return to the park,’ said Chee Siok Chin.
Chee Soon Juan, the head of the Singapore Democratic Party, was stopped a week ago for trying to pass them out. On that occasion, the pamphlets were seized.
By walking in pairs or alone, the police agreed the event did not constitute a march or gathering, Chee said, adding that the passing out of pamphlets was not illegal.
Under the city-state’s laws, any outdoor gathering of four or more people is prohibited without a police permit. Chee said he applied for one but received no response.
‘The reason we are here is because we are protesting against the denial of rights of Singaporeans to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, the pamphlet said. ‘These rights are crucial in helping to protect our interests, our economic well-being.’
All wore T-shirts saying, ‘Democracy Now.’
For a second straight night, Chee and his six supporters tried to sleep on slabs of cardboard on the pavement surrounding a park, the only place allowed by police.
While supporters brought food and a change of clothing, six policeman accompanied each one to the park bathroom.
‘What is this country coming too?’ the 44-year-old Chee exclaimed. ‘Fear is so instilled in the people.’
With the city-state under international criticism for banning 27 activists and prohibiting any outdoor protests, Chee said he planned to return to the park and stay until Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong completes his speech at the official opening of the IMF and World Bank meeting on Tuesday.
The ban on 22 of the 27 was lifted in an unexpected reversal, but 167 civil society groups boycotted the event in retaliation.
Chee had initially planned to march on Saturday past Parliament House, the convention centre and then hold a rally.
When he or any of the others started to move, they were surrounded by police linking their arms.
Chee, a former psychology lecturer, expressed confidence the police would make any arrests with the meetings going on.
A spokeswoman said police have been ‘engaging’ Chee and his associates.
The park holds Singapore’s Speaker’s Corner, started in 2000 to give the public an opportunity to speak but rarely used.
Registering with police is required. Speakers are prohibited from discussing subjects that could ignite religious or racial violence or threaten national security.
Chee was found guilty last Tuesday in a defamation case brought against him by the government for articles he wrote in the party’s newsletter.
He was made bankrupt earlier this year after he was unable to pay Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong 500,000 Singapore dollars (320,000 US dollars) in libel damages stemming from the 2001 election.