This weekend, the Bersih (clean) movement gathered in central Kuala Lumpur to call for electoral reforms, with as many as 50,000 ordinary Malaysians taking part. The response from the police was swift, turning hoses and then tear gas on the protesters.
I implore you to watch the video below; it's 12 minutes long but captures the drama of the events unfolding, and captures the raw reality of how the Malaysian police operate, at the behest of the ruling party UMNO.
It has been widely reported that the man seen around the 9-minute mark, convulsing on the ground while handcuffed as police stand around indifferently, is Baharuddin Ahmad, who passed away shortly after. However Bersih's website seems to indicate that this is mistaken identity.
Here are some accounts of the events. First, the Wall Street Journal:
Based on the evidence of this weekend's rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysians aspire for a more competitive political system than what they have. Also based on this weekend's evidence, Prime Minister Najib Razak isn't prepared to give it to them.
An estimated 20,000 or more people peacefully gathered in Kuala Lumpur Saturday to call for free and fair elections. Their complaints included vote-rigging and gerrymandering of constituencies to the ruling party's benefit. Bersih 2.0, as the rally was called, was the biggest event of its kind in four years. The original Bersih (the word means "clean" in Malay) called for electoral reforms in 2007.
As with the original rally, this one was met not by understanding from the government but by police deploying tear gas and water cannons. More than 1,600 attendees were detained and released late Sunday. One demonstrator died from a heart attack.
The crackdown was little surprise given the government's actions before the rally. Over the past two weeks, the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) tried its best to intimidate the organizers. More than 200 activists and opposition members were detained, some on charges of "waging war" against Malaysia's constitutional monarch. The police arrested those wearing T-shirts affiliated with Bersih. The army publicly conducted crowd-control exercises.
The situation was on the boil until the king intervened, asking both sides to settle differences. Mr. Najib offered a stadium to host the rally but then backed off. Last Thursday, he appeared with a group of martial artists who vowed to "wage war" against Bersih, saying: "If there are evil enemies who want to attack the country from within, you, my brothers, will rise to fight them." His scare tactics backfired as thousands of protesters, further angered, arrived from across the country.
Saturday's rally has united and energized the political opposition. So the government is now downplaying the entire event and even blaming Bersih for creating chaos. The police claim only 6,000 protesters showed up. Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein complimented police efforts to keep control despite "being challenged and provoked." He said the protesters sought "to be arrested in order to portray the government as cruel."
If the government is going to respond like this—intimidation followed by denial—a Bersih 3.0 could eventually materialize, though organizers have ruled it out anytime soon. Underlying this weekend's events is growing public impatience with UMNO as Malaysians find rising inflation, coupled with slow reforms, eating into their standard of living. Saturday's turnout is a sign that Malaysians also understand the link between true democracy and good government.
On Sunday, Mr. Najib called on the "silent majority" of Malaysians, who he claims opposed Bersih, to speak up. If he continues to create an environment of fear and repression, he may find this silent majority speaking up soon, but against him.
Now, this from Bernama, the state-run newspaper which is little more than a mouthpiece for the government:
The rally organised by 62 non governmental organizations, including the Bar Council, who are claiming themselves to be a civilized society and demanding reforms for a clean and just election, was nothing more than a ploy by the opposition.The best part is where the article claims that yelling "reform" or "Allahu Akbar" is a sign of being an opposition supporter. Not to mention the inherent implication that being an opposition supporter is akin to being a traitor.
Because, based on the two slogans adopted by the opposition parties - 'reformasi' (reformation) and 'Allahhu Akbar' (Allah the Almighty) - lauded by the demonstrators during the rally, it was clearly evident that the demonstrators were their supporters and the presence of the opposition leaders is further testimony.
Are they oblivious of what happened today? -- traffic congestion due to police inspection (police roadblocks), business premises forced to close, disruption in daily activities in the city, loses amounting to millions, social functions like weddings disrupted.
The illegal rally also saw hundreds of demonstrators who failed to heed warnings from the police being detained, including opposition leaders.
What happened today prompted Information Communication and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim to refer the illegal assembly as an attempt to tarnish the image of the government led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
Dr Rais was reported as saying that the opposition were alarmed by Najib's numerous successes achieved through the implementation of the 1Malaysia concept and economic transformation.
Their claims for reform and a clean and just election in reality does not make sense because the reality is that the opposition had won five states and 82 of the 222 Parliamentary seats whilst Barisan Nasional (BN) lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament during the March 2008 general election. (Full article)
Now from someone on the ground. This comes from a friend of mine, JJ, who was in the midst of the demonstration when the police fired tear gas into a hospital compound after protesters had sought refuge in there. I should add that JJ is far from being a rabble-rousing activist; he is a pretty conservative dude who works as a market analyst. He's the kind of ordinary Malaysian who made up the Bersih crowd, regular folk who have had enough of being governed by crooks and gangsters.
1. I've never seen Malaysia more united in a singular cause. All the races came together to march even in the pouring rain. Really amazing stuff. I've never felt more patriotic and proud to be Malaysian.I'll leave the last words for Malaysia's super-oily Prime Minister, Najib Razak:
2. The demonstration was peaceful, respectful, organized and clean. No smashed windows, burning cars, looting, vandalism etc etc which the government portentously warned may happen. If anyone was violent, it was the police - launching teargas canisters without warning, directly at opposition leaders instead of in the air.
3. The crowd was massive. Not the 6,000 the IGP so naively and defensively claimed. Come on, if they arrested around 1,500 people (another stat from the cops), does that mean they brought in a quarter of the rally's members? What rubbish. What I could see when we congregated at the crossroads of Jalan Yap Kwan Seng and Jalan Ampang (between Public Bank HQ and KLCC) was the entire length (as far as the eye could see anyway) of Jalan Ampang crammed with people. And this doesn't include the other group which gathered at Petaling Street after the police fired water cannons in the Pudu intersection - effectively cutting the crowd into 2. I was forced into the Pudu crowd and my brother into the Petaling Street one.
4. I'm not entirely sure what time the Tung Shin hospital incident occurred. But i remember it started about 45mins to an hour after the rain started. We got word that the FRU were advancing down Jln Pudu towards Jln Bukit Bintang. Because we didn't want to clash with the UMNO Youth Patriots there, we took a perpendicular road along Jln Pudu which led up to an abandoned piece of land. At the end of this area was a small steep incline leading up to Tung Shin Hospital which was separated from us by a wire fence. To avoid being cornered by the police, the demonstrators started climbing up the cliff and lifted up the bottom of the wire fence to let everyone into the hospital compound.
Most of us managed to get into the hospital and took shelter from the rain under the awnings round the back. Some of us went to the carpark overlooking Jalan Pudu to see what was going on. We saw FRU members marching up the street. They proceeded to fire at least 4 tear gas canisters into the hospital compound. One landed about 10 feet from me. To escape the gas, we all entered the back entrance of the hospital building. The crowd should be commended for being civilized, quiet and respectful throughout our temporary huddle in the lobby.
It was unfortunate that the hospital staff refused entry to some demonstrators pleading to be allowed in from the front entrance. However I heard that after I left some 10 minutes later, they relented. I was only in Tung Shin for half an hour before escaping through the back fence in case the FRU decided to storm the hospital.