KUALA LUMPUR – Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government is on the defensive after Malaysia’s biggest opposition-aligned protest in almost four years was put down forcefully on Saturday by riot police, water-cannons and teargas in the national capital.
Over 1,600 people were arrested in the crackdown, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the leadership of the protest organizers, Bersih 2.0, a coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking reform of the country’s electoral system.
As the dust settled and Malaysians assessed the longer-term impact of the rally, Najib praised the police’s firm response to what he deemed an “illegal” gathering, while Anwar warned of a “hibiscus revolution” – referring to Malaysia’s national flower – unless the electoral system is overhauled and broader reforms undertaken. Protesters said that one man died from a heart attack after fleeing teargas, a claim disputed by police who say the fatality was unrelated to the protest.
Bersih organizers and independent analysts believe Malaysia’s electoral system is skewed in favor of the United
Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), which heads the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and has held power uninterrupted since Malaysia achieved independence in 1957. In particular, Bersih has called for a cleaning up of electoral rolls and equal access to state media for opposition parties. The UMNO-led government dominates Malaysia’s mainstream media, which predictably took the government’s side in reporting on Saturday’s protest and crackdown.
A similar protest in 2007 elicited a similar heavy-handed government response, including the arrest of several demonstrators. Some analysts believe that crackdown helped turn popular opinion in favor of the three-party People’s Alliance opposition, comprised of Anwar’s reformist Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Islamist PAS and the secular Chinese-led Democratic Action Party (DAP).
The opposition made significant gains at the 2008 general elections, denying UMNO the two-thirds parliamentary majority its coalition traditionally has held. The result was a massive blow to UMNO, denting its aura of invincibility and suggesting that an alternative government was possible.
The opposition won 47% of the popular vote and took control of five of the country’s 13 states at those polls and soon after aimed to bring down the government through parliamentary defections. Those defections never materialized and the BN has won in various by-elections held since 2008.
The Anwar-led opposition has lost some traction due to infighting, including over issues such as sharia law, and Anwar’s new legal troubles on sodomy charges. Sodomy is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Anwar has denied the charges, which have successfully shifted public attention away from earlier opposition-led reform debates.
Yet the weekend’s protest and government crackdown are expected to give the People’s Alliance a new lift ahead of general elections that some analysts believe Najib will call within this year to pre-empt an expected slowdown in the economy next year. Some say the crackdown has underscored UMNO’s authoritarian roots, despite policies implemented by Najib in recent years to soften its public image.
In the days leading up to July 9, police arrested over 250 Bersih supporters, claiming that they were “waging war against the king”. That did not deter the country’s monarch, known officially as the “Yang di Pertuan Agong”, or “Agong”, from making a rare political intervention by meeting with Bersih leader Ambiga Sreenevasan. Taken by some as a tacit acknowledgement of Bersih’s agenda by the Agong, the protesters changed their original plan to march though Kuala Lumpur and agreed instead to rally at the Merdeka Stadium.
The government flip-flopped its earlier position and along with police sought to move the rally outside the city to blunt its impact. Kuala Lumpur was under police lockdown by Friday afternoon, with roadblocks on all main routes into the city and close to landmark locations where protesters were expected to congregate.
By Friday evening, streets across the city were eerily quiet and on Saturday morning the tourist magnet Bukit Bintang area was almost empty, with incessant fire alarms lending a post-apocalypse feel to the usually-bustling city.
By noon on Saturday at the Negara and Jamek mosques, where the rally organizers hoped to commence a march to the Merdeka Stadium, media initially seemed to outnumber protesters with police making random searches and arrests of people in a nearby bazaar.
Looking on from the train station across from the Jamek mosque, a man giving his name as Azhar said that “we will pray first and then we will demonstrate”. Asked where all the protesters were, he said that “we are around, you will see us later when we have enough numbers to march”.
At 1:30 pm, a group of around 2,000 supporters of the Malaysian Islamist opposition party PAS emerged onto the streets about a half-kilometer away from the Jamek mosque. They were marching toward Merdeka Square, which was blocked off by police, and chanting “Reformasi” and “Down with Najib”
The group was stopped by a volley of teargas rounds fired by riot police within two minutes of turning the corner toward the square. Squaring with protestor allegations that police fired teargas directly at the crowd, the protesters were given little or no warning before it was fired, with the canisters landing in the middle of the throng.
As witnessed by Asia Times Online, the main protest area then moved to the Central Market area and adjacent streets of the city, where the numbers swelled throughout the afternoon despite repeated tear gas and water cannon attacks by riot police, some of whom ran toward the protesters to arrest people wearing yellow t-shirts or anything resembling the proscribed attire of the Bersih 2.0 coalition.
Pools of blue-green tinted water sloshed around on the streets after police fired water-cannons at the demonstrators, who claimed that the water fired from the police cannons was laced with chemicals.
According to the police, no more than 6,000 people took part in the protest, while Bersih 2.0 claims that 50,000 people turned out. Asia Times Online observations estimated the protester numbers were higher than the implausibly-low official figure, while other independent assessments put the figure at between 10,000 and 20,000.
Significantly, the protesters were racially mixed, including ethnic Malays, Chinese-Malaysians and Indian-Malaysians, the three main ethnic groups in a country where politics are often played on racial lines.
It was unclear how many of the protesters were members or supporters of opposition parties and how many were unaffiliated citizens disaffected with the electoral system. According to Sivarasa Rasiah, an opposition member of parliament and vice president of Anwar’s PKR who was arrested on Saturday, the rally “was a spirited multiracial and peaceful crowd who came and went in peace for the cause of bringing about free and fair elections”.
By this correspondent’s observations, the rally was mainly peaceful, save for a few incidents of protesters lobbing water bottles at riot police trucks. The government’s harsh response to a demonstration that on the surface at least merely sought electoral reforms comes down to the ruling party’s fears of a “Malaysian Spring”, according to Ooi Kee Beng, a Singapore-based Malaysian scholar at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies
“Memories of how the first Bersih demonstration in 2007, which created the impetus that almost dethroned the Barisan Nasional, must still rankle deeply in the psyche of the government,” he said.
On the eve of the rally, with commuters hurrying home as the city went quiet, a Chinese-Malaysian government employee interviewed near the University of Malaya said that he disagreed with the Bersih rally. Refusing to give his name, the man – who said he was a DAP voter – said that the rally “seems to be directed by the opposition and looks like a distraction from Anwar’s trial”.
The BN leadership has pushed a similar line, mixing claims about the cultural inappropriateness of street demonstrations with allegations that Bersih’s electoral reform agenda was driven by opposition politics. Najib told reporters that “We dislike chaos. We like peace. We like a country where the people live in harmony.” They were lines that could have come from Malaysia’s long-time former authoritarian premier, Mahathir Mohamad.
According to Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, the protest was a front for the parliamentary opposition rather than a citizen-driven demand for electoral reform. “They [protesters] shouted ‘Reformasi’ and wreaked havoc,” he claimed afterwards.
That the demonstration took place at all was a testimony to the protesters’ determination in the face of a police lockdown, though whether it proves to be a game-changer in Malaysia’s politics remains to be seen. According to Choong Pui Yee, a research analyst from the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, the rally “caused more harm to Najib’s administration and has shown how defiant the people are”.
Taking to the streets might therefore be seen as a viable unifying political strategy ahead of the next elections, which must be held by 2013. Greg Lopez, a regular commentator on Malaysian politics for the New Mandala blog, told Asia Times Online that Malaysian opposition groups are now “willing to go to the wire in the face of threat” and warned of a “Thai-situation” with PAS saying that it will continue demonstrations until reforms are carried out.
Najib has since called on a “silent majority” to continue to support the BN, and claims that he could stage a far bigger rally than anything the opposition could mount – though presumably a BN rally would not be declared illegal in advance or stymied by police action. Najib’s approval ratings have risen since 2008, according to some opinion polls, driving speculation he could call polls later this year.
Analyst Choong Pui Yee says that the July 9 rally “does not necessarily mean the opposition will win in the next general election, but the BN government will definitely face much stronger opposition voices from opposition parties and the civil society”.
Simon Roughneen is a foreign correspondent. His website is www.simonroughneen.com. All pictures by Simon Roughneen, and Copyright 2011 Simon Roughneen.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)