Potentially Explosive Malaysian Rally Delayed

The leaders of a projected July 9 street rally for electoral reform in Malaysia have backed down and agreed to hold the affair in a stadium at a future date, they said this afternoon after weeks of growing tension that had resulted in the arrests of nearly 200 people, raids on rally headquarters and confiscation of materials connected to the event.

Ambiga Sreenavasan, the head of the electoral reform organization Bersih 2.0, as it is called, made the announcement after meeting with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s king, this afternoon.

“We accept the government’s offer to hold the demonstration in a stadium,” she said told reporters following the meeting at the Istana, or palace.

Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak later in the afternoon offered to meet with Bersih’s leaders to determine where and when the rally could be held. “They must go in peace and leave in peace,” he told reporters.

Bersih’s leaders had planned to march through the streets of Kuala Lumpur to present a petition to the Agong to clean up the electoral process. The decision to back away from a street rally and to delay it to an as-yet undetermined date gives a measure of relief to the tension, which has been exacerbated by threats by the Malay supremacy advocacy NGO Perkasa, headed by firebrand Ibrahim Ali, and the youth wing of the United Malays National Organization, to hold counter-rallies at the same time and place Bersih had scheduled to hold its event, a recipe for real trouble. The government had offered from the start to allow the rally to go ahead, but only if it takes place in a stadium.

Bersih, or the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, is demanding that the country clean up its electoral act, alleging that millions of voters have been disenfranchised by government electoral policies that keep the young and new voters off the rolls. The organization, joined by 60 other civic groups, has published an eight-point list of demands that the government clean the electoral rolls, reform postal ballots, allow for a 21-day campaign period, end gerrymandering, give free and fair access by both sides to the major newspapers and television stations, which are owned by the country’s major political parties, and allow other reforms.

The government, headed by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, has reacted to the threat of the rally with inordinate force, threatening to charge its leaders with sedition and other offenses. Sources close to the United Malays National Organization, the biggest ethnic political party in the country, charge that Bersih is only a front organization for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition.

“Bersih as an opposition alliance is desperate to divert attention from (opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's) sexual escapades and political problems,” said an UMNO source. “The King's intervention has checkmated Ambiga. Expect things to heat up as we head into elections which are thought to be on early next year.”

That is a charge that Bersih spokesmen deny, saying their only aim is to clean up the electoral process. In any event, the organization’s determination to go ahead with the rally has raised implacable opposition from the government, which last week termed Bersih an illegal society and offered to invoke the country’s draconian Internal Security Act, which allows in effect for indeterminate detention without recourse to habeas corpus.

“They are arresting for all kinds of different reasons, mainly for wearing yellow tee-shirts,” said Wong Chin Huat, a political science professor and member of the Bersih steering committee. “Most have been arrested and released, but it’s still troublesome. Just a sign with the word ‘Bersih’ is taboo.”

In 2007, prior to elections that changed the political map of the country, broke the national coalition’s two-thirds hold on the Parliament and gave the opposition winning margins in five states, Bersih held a massive rally in Kuala Lumpur that attracted some 40,000 people. At that point it was the biggest in the country’s modern history, and created chaos on Kuala Lumpur’s streets. Police used water cannon and tear gas to seek to quell the protesters, blocking streets and chasing them through the city‘s thoroughfares.

“Malaysia is not a homogenous society,” said the UMNO source. “We are multiracial. That’s exactly how a race riot starts. And since Bersih says it’s on the side of the people, why not listen to people not to have a street rally? Why must they go against what so many people have asked them not to do? Why the need for a street rally if a stadium is provided?”

On June 25, the government arrested 30 members of the opposition Socialist Party of Malaysia on their way to a political rally, charging that they had communist materials and intended to wage war against Malaysia’s king, a charge that was regarded as nonsensical by most observers.

As far as Bersih 2 is concerned we are a peaceful movement,” Ambiga, the organization’s leader, told reporters at a press conference on Monday. “We have always wanted this to be a peaceful movement. And the idea was to communicate our views as to electoral reforms in a peaceful manner. Unfortunately, events not caused by us, over the past one month have resulted in a series of events which have caused severe injustices to supporters of Bersih. We have been very unhappy with that situation. We also believe there were elements who were publicly trying to use scare tactics against Bersih supporters. We believe there were tactics used to raise tensions. None of which was the doing of Bersih”

“The government is seeking to prosecute Bersih leaders and activists under laws such as the Sedition Act of 1948 and the Police Act of 1967 in violation of fundamental rights recognized under international law,” according to a statement by Human Rights Watch, which urged the government to end its crackdown.

“The numbers of people who were going to attend the rally may have gone up because of provocation by the police,” Wong told Asia Sentinel. “Their tactics have backfired. For many people, what they have done has gone to the height of ridicule, it is absurd.”

Two opposition members of parliament have been arrested, one for leading a group of five people who were merely organizing cleaning activities in Johor, Wong said.