Malaysian authorities on Thursday ordered gay rights activists to scrap an annual festival that had drawn fire from conservative politicians and religious leaders, with officials saying the event “threatens national security.”
The festival, which began in 2008 and tries to promote greater tolerance for gay Malaysians, was set to begin in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, in a few days. The national news agency, Bernama, reported that the festival had drawn a stream of complaints, including one from Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who said it ran counter to traditions in Malaysia, a nation with a Muslim majority.
“Police received many protests from nongovernmental organizations, including Islamic and non-Islamic organizations who feared that the program could create disharmony, enmity and disturb public order,” the deputy inspector general of police, Khalid Abu Bakar, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, according a translation by Bernama.
He said that the organizers, a group known as Sexuality Merdeka, would face punishment if the festival were to go forward. “If they are adamant, we will not hesitate to detain them,” he said. He said the police were not against the rights of Malaysians to express themselves. “But when this crops up and threatens national security,” he said, “we have to take action.”
While the festival had flown under the radar of the authorities in previous years, the organizers drew broad attention late last year with a campaign encouraging gay Malaysians to proclaim their sexuality in videos posted online. More than a dozen people submitted videos for the campaign, which was modeled on the American “It Gets Better” video project against the bullying of gay men and lesbians, but only five of the videos were posted after a fierce backlash that included death threats.
The campaign and the festival were part of an effort by the group and other gay rights advocates to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in Malaysia’s conservative society. Sodomy remains a crime in the country, punishable by as much as 20 years in prison, though it is rarely prosecuted.
Pang Khee Teik, one of the group’s co-founders, wrote in a blog post on Thursday that the authorities could ban the festival, but they would not stop his advocacy on behalf of gay Malaysians. “If anything, this ban proves why we need to keep fighting for our rights,” he wrote.
Liz Gooch contributed reporting.