Malaysia’s Discontent

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Malaysia’s Discontent

Malaysia’s authorities crack down on Bersih NGOs over fears that planned street protests could spark instability.

In Kuala Lumpur, the authorities are apparently doing some shaping up. Street protests are planned for July 9 by 60 non-government organizations (NGOs) called Bersih, meaning ‘clean’ in Malaysia, amid alleged irregularities involving the nation’s electoral system.

Dubbed ‘Walk for Democracy,’ Bersih is calling for free and fair elections while promoting its constitutional right to freedom of assembly. This has already resulted in 70 arrests and accusations Bersih is plotting to overthrow the government and is spreading communist ideology.

The biggest risk, however, is that the rally is being hijacked by government-friendly and opposition forces, all threatening to join in the protest or march in support of their benefactors. This has prompted further warnings that the country’s stability is at stake.

Insiders say extremist elements within Malaysia’s Muslim community, in particular the Malay supremacy group Perkasa, are hoping to use the rally to inspire an Arab spring at home, mimicking uprisings in the Middle East. The opposition wants to prove it’s still a force to be reckoned with, while less ambitious Malays would simply like to register their discontent with the current government.

One Sarawakian politician went so far as to say: ‘It will bring about a situation where everyone will suffer. We only have to look at Middle East countries starting from Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.’

Speculation that an early election will be held has been ripe ever since Prime Minister Najib Razak ousted his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi a year after his weak showing in the 2008 poll.

In declining to quash rumours of a pending poll, Najib has fed a constantly turning mill that insists he needs his own poll to establish a political mandate, win back the two-thirds parliamentary majority lost by Badawi and take advantage of a relatively solid performing economy, which some fear is in decline.

He also needs to unite his party and the coalition.

The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has become increasingly fractious in recent years with lead party Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) also facing dwindling popularity in the polls.

This is particularly the case in the resource-rich East Malaysian state of Sabah, which continually ranks among the country’s poorest. Locals there are demanding a bigger share of the wealth, and the broader discontent with UMNO and BN shouldn’t be underestimated.

Recent successes scored by the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) in federal and state by-elections and at the April state poll in Sarawak has put UMNO on notice.

Its popularity is unlikely to benefit from the arrests, accusations of communist infiltration and warnings of national instability. The lodging of police reports calling for the rally to be cancelled, if upheld, will only aggravate a potentially explosive situation even further.

Perhaps Najib should hurry up and call that early election, if that is indeed his intention.