By Christopher McAteer
The Bersih 2.0 rally (also dubbed as the “Walk for Democracy”) which took place in Kuala Lumpur on the 9th July was reported in the world’s media as a brave demonstration for political reform which was met with an overly forceful police crackdown. But after the 10,000 to 20,000 demonstrators were dispersed – 1,700-odd arrested – the western media filed their reports and looked elsewhere.
Perhaps the demonstration, coming in a year in which the Middle East has been in revolt, did not fit into the general narrative of democratic revolutions against autocratic states. Bersih 2.0 has its own unique narrative, spawning from the 2007 Bersih movement which sought to heighten awareness of the corruption within the Election Commission of Malaysia (EC) and the unfair practices of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.
Bersih itself consists of over sixty non-governmental organisations and is supported by the three main opposition parties: the Pan-Islamic Malaysian Party (PAS), People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). This coalition of political and rights groups are campaigning for a more open and less corrupt electoral system, stating the following eight demands on its official website:
- Clean the electoral roll
- Reform postal voting
- Use of indelible ink
- A minimum campaign period of 21 days
- Free and fair access to mainstream media
- Strengthen public institutions
- Stop corruption
- Stop dirty politics
The figures for the July 9th rally are disputed, but independent media sources suggested attendance was between 10,000 and 20,000 and constituted a broad cross-section of the Malaysian ethnic and religious groups.
The protest was designed to be a peaceful event to show the population’s support for political and electoral reform. But the authorities opposed the rally in Kuala Lumpur and blocked the protest route because Bersih had not received official sanction for the gathering.
The police deemed the activity illegal and fired teargas and water-cannons at protesters, as well as beating protesters – one man died due to heart failure in the fray. The police reported almost 1,700 arrests on the day; among those injured was prominent opposition MP Anwar Ibrahim.
Six members of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) – including MP Michaeal Jeyakumar Devaraj – were arrested and detained for a period of 28 days on trumped-up charges ranging from ‘rebellion against the king’, ‘threats to national security’ and ‘being the key movers in the organisation of the Bersih rally’.
Michaeal Jeyakumar Devaraj went on hunger strike and their detention without trial was soon ended; Prime Minister Najib Razak later admitting that mistakes had been made in their detention.
In attempting to blame the PSM for the rally the government was raising the old spectre of communism – which PSM does not represent – as a means of explaining the rally as something other than a popular movement.
The pro-government daily Utusan Malaysia put forward another bogus and rather eccentric explanation by suggesting that foreign Jewish groups were using Bersih to alter the policies of Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country. The government later distanced itself from the paper’s claims.
The western media reported the rally on July 9th and was unanimously critical of the aggressive government response. The Economist’s report on July 14th, ‘Taken to the Cleaners’, was censored by the Malaysian government, blacking out several lines referring to the death of Baharuddin Ahmad, who according to other protesters died after being hit by a teargas canister.
In the aftermath of the rally the movement has been kept strong by the groups involved in Bersih 2.0. The progressive media have been uncovering extensive evidence of vote fraud and phantom voters. In a series of investigative articles Malaysiakini have reported that foreign nationals have been added to the electoral register unlawfully and also suggest evidence of ‘cloned voters’, a voter appearing more than once on the register with the same name and ID card number, but different MyKad number.
There have also been questions raised about official corruption by human rights NGO Suaram as to alleged commissions which were paid to the Malaysian company Perimekar in the purchase of two Scorpene class submarines. The submarines were purchased by Perimekar from the French company DCNS which, if it did provide such commissions, would be in breach of French law. Suaram also alleges that a substantial commission was paid to highly placed officials in the Malaysian government.
Prominent French lawyer William Bourdon was in Malaysia recently to pursue the case and speak at fund-raisers for Suaram. After arriving at Kuala Lumpur airport on July 22nd from Penang, where he’d been speaking at a dinner the night before, Bourdon was detained by immigration officials. He was deported later that evening, the Immigration Department stating that he had “violated the terms of his Social Visit Pass”. Suaram deny this claim and consider the deportation to strengthen their suggestions of official corruption in the Perimekar case.
This comes at a time that PKR parliamentary leader Anwar Ibrahim is appearing in court over allegations of sodomy, a crime in Malaysia. Anwar was charged with such an allegation before in 1998, as well as alleged corruption, and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. He appealed both charges and was acquitted of the sodomy charge.
Both earlier charges are widely considered false and to have been politically motivated. The new charge of sodomy is strongly denied by Anwar and his supporters.
The Bersih 2.0 movement will no doubt gather pace in the months to come, but so will the obfuscation and dividing tactics of the government and their media mouthpieces. With a general election touted to be next year the will of the people will only prevail if the government and the EC cleans up its act and allows for a more free and fair electoral and political process.
Bersih is the dominant force in pushing such reform and will continue to flourish as long as the government refuses to approach the questions being asked and the demands being made by its citizens.
Christopher McAteer is a writer based in the UK. His work can be followed at www.christophermcateer.com.