Kuala Lumpur Readies for Confrontation

The city government in Kuala Lumpur has set the stage for an all-but-certain confrontation with electoral reform protesters for tomorrow, having obtained a court order to keep the marchers out of Dataran Merdeka, the city’s historic Independence Square.

Rejecting the permit to march to the square is a gamble on the part of the government that could turn disastrous, as did a similar march in July 2011, with police assaulting marchers with water cannons and tear gas, blocking major streets and arresting as many as 1,600 people. Pictures of people choking on tear gas and being soaked with water were beamed around the world, earning the government international opprobrium from human rights organizations and various governments.

Hardliners in the national government say that the city has been accommodating, offering alternative stadiums to the marchers, including Merdeka Stadium, which the protesters were barred from in the events of last July, and that the marchers are breaking the law. Police Friday said the participants may assemble outside the square but face police action if they try to enter it. Most observers believe the protesters will try to do exactly that.

The hardliners thus hope that the public will see the marchers as breaking the law and generate outrage by disrupting movement throughout the city. However, the hawks seem unable to recognize that using force could well generate more sympathy than outrage.

In any case, workmen early Friday morning placed barriers around the entire square in the center of the city in an effort to keep the marchers out. The city is described as “locked down” in an effort to stop them from reaching the area. Roadblocks were already causing traffic congestion on Friday afternoon as police began to tighten up against out-of-town arrivals.

The march has been called by Bersih, also known as the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, an amalgam of 150-odd NGOs, many of them aligned with the opposition, demanding electoral reform and alleging they have been frustrated by the provisions offered by the government of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. They also allege that hundreds of thousands of dubious voters have been added to election rolls in recent weeks as the country readies for what are expected to be national elections in May or June.

This time it was the Kuala Lumpur Mayor Ahmad Fuad Ismail who ordered the march banned as the national government preferred to try to keep at least some distance from the fray. Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on April 23 that the rally posed no threat and did not require excessive presence of the police, adding that Bersih hadn’t gained any traction at that point. However, the banning of the march is being regarded as a sign that hawks at the national level have overruled those who advocated opting for benign neglect.

The government didn’t help its cause earlier this week by allowing only a single day for debate on eight reforms to the draconian Internal Security Act before pushing it through. Also reformers complained that on April 20 the government had pushed through a 3 a.m. amendment removing the right of electoral candidates and their representatives to observe the registration of voters in polling stations on election day. Reformers have also alleged that hundreds of thousands of dubious voters have been registered in recent days as the country readies for its first national elections since 2008.

The episode is regarded by political analysts as a cat-and-mouse game between the government and the electoral reform group, which is perceived to be closely aligned with the three-party Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition headed by leader Anwar Ibrahim, who met with foreign envoys and other western observers, complained that the ruling Barisan Nasional had no intention of allowing free and fair elections.

Bersih said it would go ahead with the protest after being frustrated by the refusal of a Parliamentary Select Committee to accede to recommendations to reform the electoral process. Those recommendations included cleansing the electoral rolls, reforms of absentee voting, the use of indelible ink to mark voters’ fingers after voting to thwart repeat voting, a minimum campaign period of 21 days, and fair access to the media – a proposal almost impossible to fulfill, since the three major political parties own all the major mainstream news outlets, all of which have been reporting negatively on the plans for the protest. Election reformers complained that only the indelible ink recommendation was accepted.

They also complained that the government pushed through a 3 a.m. measure in parliament to remove the right of candidates or their representatives to observe voter registrations on election day so that opposition leaders would be unable to spot phantom voters, and removed a requirement that all printed materials bear the name of the printer and publisher from campaign materials.