Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Malaysia Rally Turns Ugly

Police turned on tens of thousands of protesters demonstrating for electoral reform in Malaysia on Saturday. It might not help the government’s image ahead of elections.

By Simon Roughneen for

Tens of thousands of yellow and green-clad protestors gathered in Kuala Lumpur were turned on by police firing water cannon and tear gas Saturday as protests seeking reforms of Malaysia’s electoral system turned ugly.

The demonstrators, part of the latest Bersih (clean) rally, were driven back from Independence Square after they pushed through barricades sealing off the plaza. Almost 400 demonstrators were subsequently arrested by police, including some seen being dragged away holding bloodied faces and bruised limbs.

Moments after Malaysian  opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim addressed the crowd at the frontline, several protestors at the barricades suddenly shouted “back, back,” before pushing through the police lines around the Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, the iconic downtown location where the protestors sought to hold their sit down demonstration seeking changes to how Malaysia holds elections.

Bersih is a grouping of NGOs and activists who say that Malaysia's election system is skewed in favor of the current government, a coalition that has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957. Recent electoral reforms proposed by the government don’t go far enough, say the protest leaders, who have been criticized in some quarters locally for being too close to Malaysia’s parliamentary opposition. Bersih says that anyone is free to support their electoral reform cause, including the current government.

Bersih said Friday that they expected 100,000 people to take to Kuala Lumpur’s streets, and though the eventual turnout was unclear, estimates have ranged anywhere from 30,000 to 250,000 as protestors lived up to their pledge to march from several locations in the city to Independence Square, where the organizers hoped for “goodwill from the government.” The protestors said that they had the right to gather at the square, but the government ruled otherwise, saying it offered the organizers four alternative venues, a move that Bersih in turn said came too late to be logistically feasible.

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Bersih leader Ambiga Sreenevasan told media after the rally that a crowd of 250,000 was on the streets, concluding that “in that sense it (the rally) was a success.” But under a searing southeast Asian sun glinting off the high-rise skyline backdrop, Malaysia’s biggest city once more turned into a battleground, repeating the events of the July 9, 2011, Bersih rally, when the electoral reform group and its supporters last took to the streets.

This time around, though, the blame game could go both ways, with some protestors seen pushing through barricades, followed by police firing water cannon laced with chemicals and tear gas, sending the crowd running back toward a nearby mosque and train station.

In a statement released early Saturday evening, Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Hishamuddin Hussein praised police and put the blame squarely on protestors. “A group of protesters tried to provoke a violent confrontation with the police,” he said.

“I’m not surprised they released the gas,” said Bert Chen, one of the thousands of protestors, speaking after leaving the protest area. Raising his right arm to show a grazed elbow, he said: “I fell, and lost my shoes…There was so much confusion, and people were running in several directions.”

Nodding toward the coils of razor wire running along the edge of the Independence Square, protestor Norariani Harris said “people have the right to sit there peacefully,” referring to the square. “But this wire is like something inhuman.”

Last July, more than 1,600 people were arrested, including opposition leaders. That crackdown prompted a decline in the government's popularity, though Prime Minister Najib Razak recently recovered some lost ground in opinion polls, partly on the back of cash handouts to households taking home less than RM3,000 a month.

Last year’s loss of face also seemingly prompted a reform drive starting in September 2011, with changes proposed to Malaysia's print media regime, to draconian-sounding laws allowing detention without trial, and through new laws allowing peaceful protests.

Most of the new laws have been criticized, however, as not going far enough. Speaking close to police lines earlier Saturday, protestor Fuzeani Fauzi said: “the only transparent thing about this government is their lack of sincerity and transparency.”

The reforms are thought to be part of a pre-election drive by the Barisan Nasional (National Front) government, which though it won the 2008 election, suffered its worst ever result. A resurgent opposition led by Anwar – who in January was acquitted in a controversial and many say politicized case in which he was accused of sodomizing a male aide –  hopes to make further inroads into the BN monopoly on power, if not winning the election outright.

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The Malaysian opposition feels that this outcome is impossible under the current electoral system, which, among other allegations, is said to include tens of thousands of false names on the electoral roll, including someone who if living would be more than 150 years-old. The election commission is regarded as tainted by the opposition, and on Friday, Malaysia’s online media revealed that the commission head failed to disclose past membership of the United National Malays Organization (UMNO), the main party in the BN government. Bersih head Ambiga Sreenevasan told a Friday press conference that “to be quite honest, I was shocked beyond belief on hearing that they might have been UMNO members.”

Though not required under law until April 2013, an election could come as soon as June 5, with the government obliged to give only a week's notice under current laws, another complaint registered by Bersih.

Today’s clampdown could mean a delayed election, if it means a repeat drop in popularity for the government, which is due to launch a new minimum wage next week.

But if the government can blame protestors for pushing through police barriers today – apparently contravening pledges made by the Bersih leaders – then it might well work against the opposition come election time.

“It appears as if the opposition is trying to leap-frog over Bersih,” said Choong Pui Yee, analyst at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, who was present at the rally on Saturday, but she added that "the vast majority of the thousands of protestors were peaceful and the police over-reacted."

Simon Roughneen is a Southeast Asia-based writer.