BANGKOK – Recently-released United States diplomatic cables from 2008-2010 shed light on Malaysia’s political scene in the aftermath of a controversial crackdown on a recent opposition-backed electoral reform demonstration in Kuala Lumpur where over 1,600 people were arrested, including opposition politicians. On July 9, Malaysia’s police fired teargas and water-cannon at thousands of protesters who defied a ban on the rally, which was organized by Bersih 2.0, a coalition of non-governmental organizations that says it wants changes to how Malaysia stages elections, including the mandatory use of indelible ink to prevent voters from casting multiple ballots. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government was widely criticized for its heavy-handed and disproportionate response to what was a peaceful demonstration by civil society groups. Putrajaya alleged that the protest was a front for the ambitions of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who says he was injured during the crackdown and faces the next stage of an unrelated and controversial sodomy trial on August 8. Hints as to why the government reacted as it did are contained in an August 2008 assessment by US ambassador James Keith, who wrote: “The ruling party wants to stay in power indefinitely, and that means Anwar and the multi-racial opposition front he is leading must fail. At least so far, there is scant evidence of a more thoughtful and forward-looking analysis within UMNO [United Malays National Organization]. In fact, the ruling party could find some common ground with the opposition if it were willing to countenance gradual development of a two-party system of checks and balances.”
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.