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 — More than a week after Malaysian police fired teargas and water cannons at thousands of demonstrators seeking reform of the country’s electoral system, a Facebook petition calling on Prime Minister Najib Razak to quit has drawn over 200,000 backers, highlighting the role of social and new media in Malaysia’s restrictive free speech environment. One contributor to the page wrote: “The world is full of multimedia and electronics; the things we so call camera and videocam … And photos and videos were already being uploaded on the Internet but ‘it’ still denies the truth and makes stories and lies until today.” Social media such as Facebook and Twitter have played a major role in mobilising some of the demonstrators in the run-up to the rally, which went ahead despite a police ban and lockdown imposed on sprawling Kuala Lumpur on the eve of the July 9 protest. The demonstration organizer, Bersih 2.0 — a coalition of 63 NGOs (non-government organizations) that wants changes such as updated electoral rolls and a longer election campaign period — has its own Facebook page, attracting a similar number of “likes” as the page urging Najib to step down, with 190,000+ fans at the time of this posting.
KUALA LUMPUR — After seven years as an undocumented migrant worker in Malaysia, waiter Ko Saw knows well the tough grind facing his compatriots in one of Southeast Asia’s more advanced economies. “In my seven years here I have only been caught once by the police,” he recalls over a dish of deep-fried Burmese snacks at an open-air row of Asian street restaurants in the Puchong 12 district of Kuala Lumpur. The signs around are in Burmese, Chinese, Thai and Bahasa Indonesia — as well as in English and Bahasa Malaysia — and the staff at the restaurants are all immigrant workers. “I was taken to Semenya detention center,” he says, half-smiling through a slow, rueful shake of the head. “However, I was lucky. It was not so crowded then, so we did not have such a bad time of it.” “I still have to watch for police, and try to avoid them,” he says. “I cannot afford not to work, as my parents are over 70 and need whatever money I can send back to them in Rangoon each month.”
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.
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.
GEORGE TOWN — Church burnings, pigs’ heads left outside mosques, cows’ heads paraded in protest at a Hindu temple relocation site, canings for Malay Muslims caught drinking alcohol and having extramarital sex — these are some of the lurid headline-grabbers to come out of Malaysia in recent months. Elections in 2008 saw the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), lose its dominant two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since Malaysian independence. An opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim’s People’s Justice Party made significant gains, and in September 2008 seemed to be on the brink of persuading government MPs from Sabah and Sarawak to cross the house and vote against the BN. That did not happen, however, and while the opposition has won a number of significant by-election victories at national and local levels, it has not been able to launch a final push to dethrone the UMNO-led BN.