July 10, 2011
Soul-Searching for Malaysia After BERSIH2.0
By Yong Yen Nie
In the morning of July 10, 2011, Petaling Street- the Chinatown of Kuala Lumpur- is once again bustling with activities. In local coffee shops, families sit around one another, while enjoying a typical Cantonese breakfast of fried noodles and sipping hot cups of kopi-O, or local black coffee with sugar, as part of their Sunday routine.
If there were any indication that more than 50,000 Malaysians have marched on the same street seeking for free and fair elections, well, there are none. There are no reports of public property damage and any trash left by the prostestors are quickly cleaned up by themselves.
The march on July 9, known as the BERSIH 2.0 rally, has gone down to history as the country’s largest demonstration to-date. It is also, as many Malaysians have observed, the most multi-racial one. In a country whereby its political system is largely race-based, this is a big piece of news to the nation.
Political activists and analysts believe that BERSIH’s largest success is not just its ability to draw a compelling number of citizens to join in the rally on July 9, but also it created awareness to the public on nation-centric issues that involve Malaysians regardless of creed or color.
Despite a 22-hour clampdown in the city and crackdown on BERSIH that saw the arrests of more than 200 individuals before the rally was held, an estimate of more than 50,000 people were out on the streets in Kuala Lumpur waving Malaysian flags and chanting “Hidup Rakyat” (Long Live the People) as they tried to make their way to the Independence Stadium, which was the main meeting point of the rally.
“We are at the turning point of democracy and a maturing Malaysian society,” says Wong Chin Huat, a political activist and member of the steering committee of BERSIH, which is made up of a coalition of 62 non-governmental organizations in the country.
BERSIH, which means ‘clean’ in the Malay language, had its first rally in 2007 with about 50,000 turnout. The rally became a bellweather of Malaysian politics and was seen as one of the factors that caused the ruling coalition, the National Front, to lose five states to the opposition parties, and be denied two-thirds majority of votes.
Ambiga Sreenevasan, the head of BERSIH 2.0 steering committee and attorney, says BERSIH 2.0 was formed because of the extensive reports and evidences found on vote-buying and rigging during the Sarawak state elections held in April 2011.
“We are not making any headway into any kind of reform to the country’s electoral process. If you want to enjoy public confidence, you have to make a stand,” she says in a foreign press briefing two days before the rally.
Nevertheless, the ruling government sees BERSIH 2.0 as a head-on clash and defiance by the people, although the organizers have repeatedly denied that the purpose of the rally was anti-government.
The crackdown on the rally was most stark on the day itself, which saw the arrests of 1,667 individuals, including minors. Ambiga and several politicians were also among those that were arrested. Meanwhile, on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Police fired tear gas and used water cannons with chemical-laced water at the demonstrators to stop the march.
In some instances, the scene turned ugly when the police were caught on tape firing tear gas into a hospital where some 1,000 demonstrators were taking refuge. One man died after he had a seizure but citizens reported that the police refused to remove the cable that was binding his hands.
In the aftermath of the rally, mainstream media also played down the event, with some saying that turnout for the rally was insignificant, while others put the blame on the demonstrators for the chaos in the city.
Now that the rally is over, a relevant question post-BERSIH is, what’s next? For BERSIH, as of yesterday, it has yet to submit its memorandum to the King, although the organizing committee has pledged to keep pushing for an overhaul in the country’s electoral system.
On the other hand, the government may now have some soul-searching to do. The crackdown on BERSIH, if anything, does the most damage to the current administration, led by Prime Minister, Najib Razak. Najib has openly criticized the rally and denied BERSIH the permit to hold the rally, although BERSIH had already been given the green light from the King.
Had Najib dealt with the situation differently, he could have garnered support from among the demonstrators for being a reformist, compared with his Malay peers; and the rally might not have enjoyed as much prominence.
With the BERSIH 2.0 rally likely to stay etch on voters’ minds for some time, Najib may now have to rely even more on the United Malays National Organization (UMNO)- the party that he is leading- to consolidate his power within the party than to win new votes among the people. And he has started doing so, by giving a fiery speech denouncing the BERSIH rally the day after.
Najib is likely to still stand a good chance within UMNO and rural votes as well as from East Malaysia, but this is becoming more of a case of him winning the war, but losing the battle.
What is most ironic out of this rally is that BERSIH has managed to unite Malaysians that Saturday in the name of love and justice for the country- a feat that Najib’s 1Malaysia campaign is still trying to achieve.