Malaysia’s Winter of Discontent

Malaysia’s crackdown on the Bersih rally is condemned by rights groups. But Prime Minister Najib Razak stands firm.

Malaysians of all walks of political life were conducting a cost/benefit analysis in the aftermath of last weekend’s rally, which turned ugly amid baton charges, tear gassing and the arrests of almost 1,700 people.

Prime Minister Najib Razak had initially attempted to play down the protest by Bersih, which means ‘clean’ in Malay, calling for free and fair elections. But he changed his tune after Amnesty described the crackdown as the worst case of suppression seen in this country in years. 

Speaking at a government function Sunday, Najib — widely expected to call an early election later this year or early next — lashed out at opposition-backed protesters, complaining they were trying to paint a picture of Malaysia as a repressive state.

‘They said they wanted to hold a peaceful rally. If the police had not monitored it, it would not have been peaceful,’ the prime minister said.

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New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, also denounced the arrests, saying, ‘this is a maelstrom of the Malaysian authorities own making.’

Police were deployed under what they called ‘Operation Erase Bersih.’ They sealed off key roads, dispatched water cannons and then opened fire with tear gas as crowds formed and attempted to march towards the iconic Merdeka Stadium. Stampedes followed, and the crowds dispersed into smaller groups and taunted riot police armed with batons, guns and shields. Baton chargers followed.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was injured after police fired tear gas canisters into a tunnel. Another politician, Khalid Samad of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, was injured when police also fired a tear gas canister, at his neck.

The protesters, however, remained defiant.

Some wore yellow shirts. Most, fearing arrest, decided not to wear the colour synonymous with the movement. One man was dragged and kicked from outside the Chinese Maternity Hospital. Tear gas was then fired into the neighbouring grounds of Tung Shing Hospital where protesters had sought shelter.

Malaysia’s sometimes less than friendly neighbour Indonesia said it had warned its citizens to stay away from protest points, but that there was no need to evacuate its citizens and that it was confident that Malaysian authorities would handle the situation wisely.

It was almost a diplomatic faux pas.

Speaking on Sunday, Anwar said: ‘We will have to pursue – in parliament and outside of parliament – free and fair elections, even by rallying unless they change the electoral vote.’ He added that there was no confidence left in the government.

Crowd estimates vary widely, but tens of thousands certainly marched, the culmination of weeks of intense pressure on Najib's coalition to make election laws fairer and more transparent.

Opposition leaders have long accused Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organization of relying on fraud to maintain its 54-year hold on power. The government, however, insists the current electoral policies are fair.

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Marimuthu Manogaran, an opposition politician for the Democratic Action Party, said protesters wanted curbs that would make electoral fraud more difficult, including closer monitoring of postal votes, and increased access to media outlets during campaigning. He also said the ruling party shouldn’t be entitled to the use of government assets like helicopters and other services when contesting elections.

‘Despite the police presence and oppression, I see there’s a large presence of people on the ground in the streets of Kuala Lumpur and what is very interesting is I see a large number of them are comprised of youths. Young people coming out there to demand their rights for electoral reform and I think that is a good sign for Malaysia.

‘We are used to this tear gas and this chemically laced water from before, but I think a lot of young people have not been exposed to it before and they are getting it for the first time now,’ he said.

This was the second such rally organised by Bersih. The first, in 2007, resulted in an estimated 50,000 people taking to the streets of the capital before they were also dispersed by riot police armed with water cannons and tear gas. That rally was partly credited for record gains by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat in the 2008 elections when the opposition pact was swept to power in five states and won 82 parliamentary seats at the national level.

As a result, UMNO lost its cherished two-thirds majority and Prime Minster Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was forced out of office by a party coup, making way for Najib, who has promised the party faithful to win back UMNO’s pre-eminent status with the electorate.

Speculation of an early election, which Najib has declined to quash, has persisted ever since, with observers arguing Najib is particularly keen on his own electoral mandate. If he can win back the two-thirds majority this would also allow him to repeal archaic laws that favour native Malays in business.

In doing this, a conciliatory approach might be required. Amnesty also noted that Malaysia is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and suggested Kuala Lumpur should be setting an example for other countries to follow as opposed to baton charging a peaceful rally.

Najib, however, is standing firm and warning activists not to take to the streets again. He also gave his clearest indication yet that an early election is on the cards, although even he sounded less than convinced that the political omens are on his side.

‘When we are strong, we will emerge victorious. When there is a clear signal, I will request for the King to dissolve Parliament. But before this, we must strengthen unity and work harder,’ he said.

As another protester said while pounding the pavement, ‘this is just the start of Malaysia’s winter of discontent.’