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.
PENANG STATE — In the tourist draw of George Town in Penang in northern Malaysia, the Burmese Buddhist temple has become the locus of social and economic support for migrants from Myanmar. “l was a contractor at home, but left Burma [Myanmar] 19 years ago, arriving in Malaysia after crossing from Thailand,” said Aung Tin, a foreman on the construction site of a new pagoda, as Buddhist temples are called in Myanmar. At the construction site, all 14 staff supervised by Aung Tin – who would only talk to IRIN using a pseudonym – are Burmese migrants. “I left as soon as I could after the 1990 elections,” said Aung Tin. “The economic situation in the country was bad for years before then, and I had not been able to generate enough work. When I saw that the army was going to keep things the same, it became clear that I could not make a living,”
GEORGE TOWN — Two years after canceling her last scheduled concert in the country, US pop star Beyoncé announced earlier this month that she would perform in the Malaysian capital in late October. Her 2007 gig was cancelled after PAS – an Islamist party that forms part of the opposition coalition – threatened protests. “We are against Western sexy performances. We don’t think our people need that,” said PAS spokesman Sabki Yusof. Beyoncé’s about-turn comes despite a raft of piety-tinged controversies in recent weeks, including the shariah law sentencing of a 32 year old woman and an Indonesian national to six lashes for drinking in public. The government did a u-turn of its own, rescinding a ban on Muslims – who make up around 60% of the population – from attending a Black Eyed Peas concert in Kuala Lumpur on September 26. That gig was part of a series of events held around the world to mark the 250 year anniversary of the founding of Irish beer giant Guinness.