Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Leave the kids out of JERIT, please!

-A commentary-

The police stopped a team of more than 50 cyclists in Jerit's ‘Ride for Change' campaign in Rawang yesterday in order to "save" the under-aged cyclists from being exploited. [Malaysiakini, 16/12/08]

Not wanting to sound and look like the villain in what has been heavily condemned as a form power abuse, the police reasoned that 50 JERIT members were stopped because it was discovered that more than half of them were children under the age of 18. Apparently, the police were obliged to take action to 'save' those kids from possible 'exploitation' by JERIT members.

Jaringan Rakyat Tertindas (JERIT), a coalition of various NGOs whose struggles lie mainly on social issues recently embarked on a nationwide, state-to-state cycling expedition to raise public awareness of social injustices. Click here to read more about the expedition.

I believe the we-arrest-because-we-are-the-hero kind of excuse by the authorities this time was somewhat similar to the time when Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said a certain reporter of a Chinese daily had to be arrested because the police were 'worried' for her safety.

Nonetheless, Selangor police chief Khalid Abu Bakar was smart to take any opportunity presented to him to effectively disrupt the JERIT expedition which was labelled an 'illegal assembly'. Ironically, the cycling expedition has been given the thumbs up by three Chief Ministers (Penang, Kedah and Selangor) but has yet to be officially recognised by the police.

That being said, JERIT's action to enlist under aged participants in their expedition was their undoing. Though I may not agree with the police's excuse of 'saving the kids' to justify their arrests, would it be safe to say JERIT handed the police another reason to disrupt their expedition?

Some of these young activists were said to be 'clueless' when asked about their reasons for participating in the JERIT expedition. Whether it's true or not, that was just what the police said. However, it still does not deny the fact that there were minors participating in the expedition. The detained adults, on the other hand, would be investigated under the Child Act on grounds of 'exploiting under aged children'. Tough luck.

With all due respect to JERIT's cause, I am not surmising the idea of the organisation being politically heretical or it being a public nuisance. Personally, I believe JERIT have legitimate issues to raise and are sincere in their campaign to spread public awarness. Members of JERIT should also be commended for their attitude and conduct in the face of incessant police harrasment. They had, so far, not done anything unlawful nor pose any threat to public safety; in the eyes of ordinary Malaysians and not the police, of course!

But, seriously, what are kids doing there? Some of the participants were said to be around 15 years old!

I believe children below the age of 18 should be left out of politics or better yet, in public demonstrations. The JERIT cycling expedition may not look like a mob of banner-welding protesters or were there any political affiliation to their cause but their actions of spreading public awareness on a scale this large is in fact, almost political. After all, social concerns and politics are closely entwined.

Youths below the age of 18 should be left free of any political involvement or public demonstrations. Therefore, they should be allowed to develop their own understanding of politics/social dilemmas for them to be able to draw their own allegiance to a political cause of their own choosing - when they come of age. It does not matter if a 15 year old had achieved the level of maturity comparable to an 18 year old; it is beside the point. There are reasons why minors are not allowed to smoke, drink alcohol or drive a vehicle.

The term 'exploited' being used by the police on the under aged JERIT members may be an over statement. But to be fair, JERIT should not have allowed minors to participate in their campaign lest they be accused of 'child exploitation'. The time for them to demonstrate has not come. No, not yet.

For now, leave the kids out!