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.