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An overzealous government response to an opposition rally
Jul 14th 2011 | SINGAPORE | from the print edition
MALAYSIA is one of South-East Asia’s stabler nations; but a rally in Kuala Lumpur on July 9th in demand of electoral reform turned surprisingly nasty, leading to the arrest of more than 1,600 people. The police fired tear gas and water cannon into the crowd, and one man died of a heart attack. All those arrested were released fairly quickly, but Amnesty International, a London-based human-rights group, called it “the worst campaign of repression in the country for years”. The government’s reaction showed a lot of nervousness about how much opposition it can tolerate.
In fact the crackdown started a few weeks ago after “Bersih 2.0” announced that it was going to stage the rally. Bersih, also known as The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, is a loose alliance of NGOs and activists (bersih means “clean”). It argues that all candidates should be given access to the mainstream media and that indelible ink should be used to stop people voting more than once. It all sounds uncontroversial, but not to the government. Bersih was declared illegal on July 1st and about 200 activists were rounded up. The march itself was then banned, although the authorities offered Bersih a stadium to meet in—and then withdrew the offer.
Perhaps the government was looking back nervously to the first Bersih march, in 2007. On that occasion, too, thousands protested against the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government and demanded reform. Subsequently, in the 2008 general election, the BN lost its largest share of votes since 1957 when it started ruling the country after the British left. The current prime minister, Najib Razak, deputy prime minister in 2007 before taking over the top job in an internal party coup, must have feared that the second Bersih rally might be a similar portent. He has to hold an election before 2013, but wants to do so earlier to win his own mandate. Opposition politicians were quick to join Bersih. The pre-eminent leader of the opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, was shoved to the ground and injured in the affray.
None of this bodes well for Malaysia. The heavy-handed police tactics have provoked a lot of anger; the government has conceded an official investigation into claims of police brutality. In one instance (caught on film), police seemed to fire tear gas and water cannon into a hospital where protesters were sheltering from a baton charge. Few old laws were left untouched in the attempt to round up suspects before the march. It was reported that 30 people arrested in Penang were investigated under Section 122 of the Penal Code for the charge of waging war against the king. Dragging in the constitutional monarch, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, seemed particularly desperate, reminiscent of the abuse of the monarchy’s position in neighbouring Thailand. On the eve of the rally, the king came out with a statement reminding everyone that “street demonstrations bring more bad than good, although the original intention is good.”
Mr Najib defended the police and accused the marchers of sowing chaos. Dismissing the motives of Bersih, he cast it as a desperate attempt by Mr Anwar to grab power. The immediate upshot is that Mr Najib may choose to delay calling for an election for some time, to let things settle down. He presumably hopes that if he waits long enough, people will have forgotten about this ugly incident. But the longer-term effects are hard to judge. It might also help to unite a fractious opposition against what they portray as an assault on democracy.