Ten thousand Malaysians joined the #KitaLawan (We Fight) rally last Saturday to press for the release of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. It was Malaysia’s first major rally of the year, and was organized in response to the high court decision affirming the sodomy conviction of Anwar.
Anwar is serving a five-year sentence after he was found guilty of the sodomy charge filed by a former aide. But Anwar said the case was politically motivated and he accused the judges of “bowing to the powers” in “murdering the judiciary.”
The number of people who attended the rally was impressive, since the police had earlier warned organizers that they might be arrested for sedition.
“If they are gathering to intimidate the government, and others, this is wrong,” said police Deputy Inspector-General Noor Rashid Ibrahim.
But this didn’t deter ordinary Malaysians from showing up in the streets and gathering in front of the Kuala Lumpur City Center. To their credit, the police also exercised restraint during the actual event and allowed the program to end peacefully.
“We are proud to hold the record of (our rallies) causing no damage to public property, not having ever caused unrest and we have gathered with noble intentions, and shown courage to resist continued oppression,” said Batu MP Tian Chua as reported by alternative news magazine Malaysiakini.
The rally also overcame the reported reluctance of some members of the opposition to give full support to the event. Some even instructed opposition politicians to focus on constituency work instead of joining the march.
But Malaysian NGOs, activists, and concerned citizens who marched in the streets showed that the #KitaLawan rally was more than just a pro-Anwar mobilization; instead, it also became a political event that united various groups against the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Opposition coalition president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was inspired by the crowd that joined on March 7.
“At first we were saddened, but now our spirits have been renewed and we will continue the struggle. Anwar’s imprisonment has given us more push to continue our struggle,” she said.
Nurul Izzah Anwar, a second-term MP and the opposition leader’s eldest daughter, opined in an interview with Global Voices that #KitaLawan represented the aspiration of Malaysians to restore democratic rule in the country. “Any regime that imprisons it’s opposition leader does not practice democracy. The rally is a manifestation of the undercurrent of support for reforms and change in this country. In particular the change of the ruling elite.”
#KitaLawan rallies were also held by Malaysian migrants and students in other countries. In London, one of the speakers in the solidarity action was former British minister of state for trade Richard Needham.
But not everybody was happy with the Saturday rally. Gerakan Youth chief Tan Keng Liang urged the police to arrest the organizers of the “illegal assembly” and for causing traffic jams and livelihood losses in the city. “They have no right to disrupt the lives of other Malaysians. If they wish to demonstrate, then do it peacefully in a stadium,” he said.
Last Saturday’s #KitaLawan rally was smaller compared with the hundreds of thousands that joined the Bersih and Reformasi democracy actions in the past. But the movement is still starting and it has the potential to gather and mobilize a broader segment of the population, especially those who are already disappointed with the leadership of the ruling coalition. This is a promising year for Malaysia’s democratic forces.