A harsh police response to Saturday’s electoral reform rally in Kuala Lumpur might signal another shift in Malaysian politics.
KUALA LUMPUR – Saturday’s electoral reform rally has raised political stakes in advance of elections in Malaysia, with the Government threatening to continue its crackdown on the opposition-linked protest movement.
In a defiant speech made on Sunday, PM Najib Razak said that the Government would implement electoral reform on its “own terms,” adding that “we want Malaysia and UMNO (the United National Malays Organisation, the main governing party) to be respected by the world.”
In the meantime, amid speculation that more protests are being planned, Home Affairs Minister Hisham Hussein said that protestors bank accounts will be investigated by police, with the Government alleging that some of the protestors sought to bring weapons to what the authorities deemed “an illegal rally.”
But there was little sign of unrest or attempted violence by protestors in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday — based on what this correspondent witnessed in a separate locations around the centre of the city — which had become a ghost town by Friday evening due to police roadblocks.
During the Saturday protest, police fired teargas and water-cannon into the crowd, sometimes with little or no warning. The protestors sought to march from various points in the city to the landmark Merdeka Stadium, site of Malaysia’s independence declaration in 1957.
One protestor died and 1667 people were arrested during the police crackdown, including embattled parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and rally organiser Ambiga Sreenevasan, who heads Bersih 2.0, a coalition of 62 NGOs that seeks reform of the country’s electoral system.
Bersih 2.0 says the current electoral regime is biased in favour of the Barisan Nasional/National Front (BN) coalition that has governed uninterrupted since independence.
Coughing and running from the fumes that lingered in the 36 degree heat and rain-sodden humidity, two younger members of the first batch of protestors to emerge on Saturday afternoon told this correspondent that they were protesting an electoral system they regard as rigged to the benefit of the Government. “They cheat us” said Rashid, aged 19, while Azraai, also 19, added that unless there was reform, he would not vote in the next election. “The system is corrupt, there’s no point”, he said.
The rally ebbed and flowed throughout the otherwise-empty city centre, with protestors dispersing and regrouping after police fired teargas and water-cannon at various locations near the centre of the city. Sivarasa Rasiah, an opposition MP and senior member of Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party told The Irrawaddy that the Government’s reaction to the rally “again showed the real ugly authoritarian face of the Malaysian police state which is not prepared to tolerate any form of peace public assembly not to its liking.”
The crackdown was criticised by analysts as excessive and could damage tourist-oriented Malaysia’s international image. The country attracts more foreign visitors than any other in Southeast Asia, according to 2010 figures, with its 18 million tourists topping neighbouring Thailand’s 16 million.
“What’s going on here?”, asked one Australian who declined to give his name, looking on bemused at the sight of protestors running from tear gas close to an otherwise empty highway running near the Negara Mosque.
The BN Government is said to be fearful of any reform-linked or opposition-backed movement, so close to elections, which may explain the apparent over-reaction to Saturday’s demonstration.
In an email, Choong Pui Yee, a Research Analyst from Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, reminded that the original Bersih movement was devised by the opposition and likely contributed significantly to the outcome of the country’s last election. “It is important to not forget the legacy and implication of the first Bersih Rally in year 2007 which contributed to the Political Tsunami in Malaysia”, she said, referring to the 2008 election when the BN lost its 2/3s parliamentary majority for the first time.
Elsewhere on Saturday afternoon, near the Bukit Bintang area, police broke up a counter-protest by the UMNO youth wing and also sought to prevent a threatened counter-rally by Malay supremacist group Perkasa, whose leaders were told before the rally not to enter Kuala Lumpur or face arrest.
According to Greg Lopez of the Australian National University, the ban on UMNO Youth and Perkasa was about the Government trying to provide “a semblance of neutrality” and hinted at in-fighting among BN members, with Najib Razak trying to fight off attempts by Malaysia’s political eminence-grise Mahathir Mohamed, a long-time former PM and BN leader, to undermine his premiership.
Ethnically-diverse Malaysia has been sensitive to ethnic and religious differences since 1969 riots saw around 3,000 ethnic Chinese killed in attacks by Malay mobs, who took umbrage at perceived Malaysian-Chinese dominance of some business sectors.
Both the ruling BN coalition and the opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim are comprised of members of all three of Malaysia’s main ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese-Malaysians and Indian-Malaysians, and the stakes have been raised in recent years by the rise in prominence of PAS, the Islamist party coming under Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition umbrella, which some see as prompting a counter Malay chauvinist movement by UMNO and more extreme allies such as Perkasa.
Saturday’s electoral reform rally similarly saw people from all three ethnic groups on the streets, with the Government alleging that the protestors were motivated by party politics ahead of elections due by 2013 but which some Malaysians expect will be called sooner.
Opinion about the Bersih 2.0 demonstration seemed to vary among the Kuala Lumpur residents. Ganely, a Indian-Malaysian restaurant owner interviewed on the eve of the rally near Puchong 12 in the city’s southern suburbs, said that “the Government should let the protest go ahead, it just looks like they are afraid.”
Taxi driver David Teo, a Chinese-Malaysian, said after the rally ended on Saturday evening that he was “angry at both sides.” With roads closed allover the city, Teo said he was struggling to find fares on what would usually be a busy Saturday evening. “This is bad for business”, he grumbled, but conceded that he was an opposition supporter and agreed with the Bersih 2.0 agenda, if not the means of publicising it.
However it could prove difficult to gauge the impact the rally will have, in the short term at least, in a country typecast as having a traditionally tame political culture, according to scholar Greg Lopez. Social networks such as Twitter were busy with comments and posts from the rally, including from some who were indifferent to the Bersih 2.0 agenda prior to Saturday, but since had decided to support it rhetorically at least. “Bersih has now become an idea in the hearts and minds of many Malaysian citizens,” said RSIS analyst Choong Pui Yee.
According to Ooi Kee Beng, based at Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, the demonstration and crackdown might prompt apolitical Malaysians to take a greater interest in public affairs. “The harsh reaction of the government, and the wide mass media coverage, would have outraged many and got many others to think seriously about the issue of electoral rules and democracy,” he said.Show