Malaysia’s massive Bersih rally over the weekend reminded us of the colors used by protesters across Southeast Asia to symbolize and articulate their political demands in their respective countries.
Bersih (meaning “clean” in the local Malay language) started as an election reform movement that mobilized thousands of Malaysians in 2007, 2011, and 2012. This year, Bersih is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is being implicated in a corruption scandal.
During all Bersih events, yellow was chosen as the protest color. It was a successful branding strategy which made yellow the symbol of the national movement for reforms in governance. A few days before Bersih 4 took place, the government enacted an order which criminalized the wearing of yellow Bersih clothing. The order described the printing, sale, and possession of the yellow Bersih shirt as a threat to security and the national interest.
During the actual Bersih event, police arrested 12 people for wearing the banned shirt. At least 100,000 people who joined the Bersih rally in Kuala Lumpur could also be prosecuted for wearing prohibited clothing.
Meanwhile, Najib downplayed the protest and accused the Bersih organizers of being unpatriotic. He made this statement while wearing red during a televised speech. His supporters vowed to mobilize a million ‘red shirts’ on October 10 to prove that majority of ordinary Malaysians still support the beleaguered prime minister.
One of the country’s prominent personalities who joined Bersih was former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The appearance of the 90-year old retired leader surprised many, since he was consistently against the holding of rallies during his two-decade rule. In a media interview, Mahathir called for people power to force the removal of Najib. He likened Najib to former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted by a popular uprising in 1986.
Mahathir’s analogy can be extended as well to the Philippine protest movement which challenged Marcos in the 1980s. Like Bersih today, Filipino protesters adopted the color yellow as a protest symbol against Marcos, whose trademark election color was red. “Yellow magic” became effective in persuading many ordinary Filipinos to resist Marcos, first through the ballot box and then subsequently in the streets, which led to the downfall of the dictator.
Will “yellow magic” also work in Malaysia? The Philippine example is a bit outdated compared to the recent conflict in Thailand, which involved dueling protesters and government supporters wearing yellow and red shirts. The Yellow Shirts are critics of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who were infamous for occupying the Bangkok airport in 2008. They succeeded in forcing a change in government but a new group emerged to counter them – the Red Shirts. This new group copied the tactics of the Yellow Shirts by blockading the major streets of Bangkok in 2010.
The daring actions and occasional clashes between these groups and the political parties that support them intensified Thailand’s political crisis. That in turn allowed the army to justify a coup in May 2014. And even before the army intervened, many Thais indicated their exasperation over the provocative campaigns of both the Yellow and Red Shirts by urging the public to wear neutral colors such as orange, white, and purple. At one point, Blue Shirts emerged, vowing to restore peace and order in society. Some suspected they were pro-government militia.
Though the coup last year ended the street rallies, Thais lost their right to organize peaceful assemblies. The military-backed government continues to ban protests and the public gathering of five or more people. Any color of protest is quickly rejected by the army as a threat to national security.
Whether it is Malaysia’s Bersih, the yellow fever of the 1986 People Power revolt in the Philippines, or Thailand’s current policy of outlawing protests organized by either Red or Yellow Shirts, the indubitable lesson from these distinct protest campaigns in Southeast Asia is that politics can never be color blind.