Bersih 2.0: Malaysia's democracy movement is not just a copy of the Arab Spring movements

Malaysia is at the crossroads … again. The government is acting with great insecurity in the face of persistent demands for democratic reform. The history of Malaysia's post-colonial settlement continues to weigh

Sean Matthews
9 July 2011

The political situation in Malaysia is currently receiving little attention in the western media, but events this weekend may dramatically change all that. Key political and civil society organisations are locked in an escalating, intractable conflict, and no-one can predict, in this most unpredictable of times, how the situation here will unfold. None of the steps in this latest dance involving ‘Bersih 2.0’, (the name given to the loose affiliation of NGOs and pressure groups also known as the Committee for Free and Fair Elections); the political parties of the opposition; and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, are familiar. Until now, civil society and opposition groups in Malaysia have generated nothing like the sudden force of collective protest which has marked the ‘Arab Spring’, the scenes of violence and turmoil seen recently in Thailand or Burma are unknown in Malaysia’s recent past. Indeed, in 2007 and 2008, large scale protests (including the first ‘Bersih’ march) were largely peaceful, and the March 2008 election, which reduced the BN majority and installed opposition government in 5 of the 12 state assemblies, seemed to indicate that political reform and a peaceful, democratic transition of power after 50 years of BN rule might yet be possible.

All that may change this weekend.

Some time ago Bersih 2.0 (Bersih means ‘Clean’ in Bahasa Malaysia), called for a rally in Kuala Lumpur which would march to the King’s palace and deliver a petition in support of a programme of '8 points' for reform, a set of, one would think, uncontroversial demands concerning electoral transparency, reform of the electoral roll, better scrutiny of electoral processes, an end to gerrymandering and ‘money politics’, and review of the political parties’ unequal access to the media (the dominant print and TV media are owned by BN affiliates).  The authorities, however, have reacted with almost comical uncertainty and anxiety, strident rhetoric mingling with a series of contradictory and confusing official statements which have served to intensify public disquiet and concern. The government identifies Bersih 2.0 with the opposition, despite the organisation's deliberately non-aligned and eclectic composition, and it is on the government's terms which the situation is playing out. Bersih 2.0, however, has no political affiliation, and has retained a strict neutrality in issues of ideology and policy outside its core concern for electoral reform.

In the past two weeks, as the 9 July rally date has approached, we have witnessed a remarkable sequence of events. The Police made signal arrests of prominent MPs, activists, and even civilians wearing or owning the coalition’s trademark yellow t-shirts. The Home Office Minister declared Bersih 2.0 an illegal association. Most of those detained remain in custody, and today a further 91 individuals (of whom some 60 were associated with Bersih 2.0) were served with Restriction Orders, forbidding them from entering the area of the city in which the rally is to take place.  Bersih 2.0’s leader, respected former President of the Malaysian Bar Council Ambiga Sreenevasan, has been accused of being anti-Muslim and of insulting the King. The Chief Minister of Malacca (and member of the Supreme Council of UMNO, the dominant Malay party in the BN), demanded that her citizenship be revoked. Bersih’s organizing committee has been under investigation variously for plotting communist revolution, fomenting racial hatred, being in the pay of foreign governments (unnamed), attacking the Malay people, and for questioning the terms of the constitution (an act of treason). In the face of these accusations, Bersih 2.0 continued to promote its 8 points, and insisted that the rally – which was to involve a march through the capital, Kuala Lumpur, would take place.

Astonishingly, as the deadlock looked complete and the parties irreconcibable, the King of Malaysia himself intervened earlier this week. His action was unprecedented. He granted Bersih 2.0 an audience. At a stroke, it appeared that accusations of treason and insurrection would be dropped. Further, within the logic of Malaysian political discourse, it would surely no longer be appropriate to characterize Bersih 2.0 as illegal, as this would implicate the King in illegal activities. An agreement was struck that Bersih would hold the rally in a stadium in Kuala Lumpur (the suggestion, originally, of the Prime Minister), and it was widely assumed that face had been saved all round through the King's action. For western commentators, and many Malaysian liberals, it was a curious denouement - the constitutional monarch's authority augmented by his judicious handling of the situation - but faced with the alternative, it seemed the best option.

Subsequent events, however, have intensified rather than alleviated the tension. The Negri Sembilan state (which borders Kuala Lumpur) has insisted all schools in the state be opened on Saturday for extra classes, in order to prevent both pupils and teachers (and parents!) from attending the rally. All Police leave is cancelled and three of the halls of residence of the University of Malaysia, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, have been occupied by Police brought in from outstation. Civil servants are forbidden from attending the rally. The Home Office continues to treat Bersih 2.0 as an illegal entity. Local police have refused a permit for the meeting in the Stadium Merdeka, citing security concerns. As the citizens of Kuala Lumpur drive home this evening they find road blocks, diversions and public transport restrictions already in place. News media are disseminating detailed information about the lockdown of the city tomorrow - a lockdown, the authorities maintain, in response to the irresponsible and illegal intentions of the Bersih 2.0 group. At the time of writing, no one knows how many people will march, or how the Police, and the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU), will react. Police insist that the gathering is illegal and participants will be arrested.

It is important to view the unfolding events not only in the context of the pressure for democratic reform associated with the Arab Spring, important as that example has been for many disenfranchised groups in Malaya, but also in relation to Malaysia's own difficult post-colonial settlement. The malaysian state comprises a delicate balance of ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, its existence secured in the complexity of a constitution which famously recognized and protected the interests of each of the predominant Malay, Chinese and Indian groups. Following the struggle against Japanese occupation, and the post-independence suppression of the communist insurgency in the 1950s and early 1960s, Malaysia experienced violent racial conflict in the 1960s. This period still marks the political psyche, with each group nursing grievances, but also anxious to avoid unleashing once more the destructive forces of racial hatred. The process of nation building in such a turbulent environment has been uneven and is incomplete, and there is considerable disagreement as to the strategy adopted by the BN regime, which has above all privileged the rights of the Malay majority, a community which is often perceived as embattled and underprivileged in relation, particularly, to the entrepreneurial chinese. An educated, anglophone, urban elite despairs of the slow pace of change, while the rural majority resents the experience of continuing poverty and lack of opportunity.

Western governments are monitoring the situation closely. The Malaysian regime has conventionally been viewed as a stable, democratic and moderate Muslim bulwark against both the more volatile nations in the region and the Chinese behemoth to the north. In recent years, however, a worsening record of corruption, widespread electoral fraud (verified by international observers), and routine practices of gerrymandering, along with the repression of opposition political groups and manipulation of the mainstream media, have been viewed with concern. Since independence, the unbroken rule of the Malay-dominated BN coalitions since independence has largely delivered peace, security, and economic development – at least, there have been none of the episodes of revolution, army dictatorship and civil chaos that have marked so many other South East Asian nation states - but there is much impatience in the country with the perceived lack of progress in the attainment of an equitable society with transparent electoral processes.

Journalists reporting the turbulent events of this Arab Spring have remarked how the political settlements which were apparently locked in a glacial status quo, slowly, almost imperceptibly began to thaw, then suddenly, transformed with surprising and unpredictable speed. It remains to be seen whether Malaysia is about to lurch into a still more uncertain and traumatic phase of history. I spent time in Romania and Bulgaria in the aftermath of the fall of the communist regimes, and people expressed astonishment at the suddenness of that transformation, having for so long accustomed themselves to the prevailing conditions. Tomorrow, in Kuala Lumpur, is not just another day.

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