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Monday, July 11, 2011

Good Things that Came Out of Bersih 2.0 Rally

by Kee Thuan Chye |

WHAT the Bersih 2.0 rally of July 9 has shown is that Malaysians of all races are willing to risk arrest to speak up for their rights; that Perkasa president Ibrahim Ali is nothing but hot air and the media should no longer give him any attention; that Umno Youth is just a directionless bunch of brats; and, above all, that the Government is the biggest loser for mishandling the entire issue.

As it was, the rally turned out to be peaceful, as the organizers had pledged it would be. The only acts of violence were those committed by the police, when they attacked the protestors with teargas and water cannons although the latter did not provoke them. In retrospect, if the Government had allowed the rally to go on without fuss from the start – and it must be said that Bersih 2.0 (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) asked modestly for only two hours, from 2pm to 4pm – it would have just gone on without fuss, and everything would have been all right.

The Government would have been seen to be accommodating and benevolent, and not afraid of a call for fair elections. Instead, by choosing to clamp down on the rally even weeks before its scheduled date – in ways as brutal as detaining six people under the Emergency Ordinance and as absurd as arresting more than 200 people, some for merely wearing yellow T-shirts – it has lost immense favor and, some analysts say, the middle ground. It is also seen to be insecure, and irrational in its overreacting to the rally, surely not a trait of good governance.

Be that as it may, two positive things emerged from July 9.

One, the culture of fear that was forged during the time of Mahathir Mohamad is forever gone. If Malaysians were daring enough to defy the strong, repeated calls by the police and the Government to stay away from the Kuala Lumpur city center on July 9, they will not be intimidated any more by future threats as long as they know what they are doing is right and the Government is wrong.

Sure, pro-Government critics will argue that the Bersih 2.0 supporters did not comprise all Malaysians, but what is significant is that it comprised the knowing ones. In the history of revolutions, these are the ones who agitate for change and cause it to happen, not the ones who have been brainwashed by official propaganda.

Two, the most heartening feature about the rally is the composition of the protestors. They came from all races, young and old. They came from all over the country, including Sabah and Sarawak. Even a one-legged man walked (on crutches) for fair and free elections.

Many were the Chinese on the streets shouting “Hidup Bersih!” and “Hidup rakyat!”, giving the lie to Ibrahim Ali’s prediction that the Chinese would stay home. As it turned out, he was the one who stayed home!

After the event, the New Straits Times interviewed some Universiti Sains Malaysia lecturer about his observations of the rally. When he said he did not see any Chinese there, he told a blatant lie. I was there and I saw a few thousand Chinese, if not more. Many were women, many were elderly. One of them said to me, “We are walking for our rights.” To see how wrong he is, this lecturer should go to youtube and type in “Bersih 2.0 at Petaling Street” and watch the video.

My friend, the writer-filmmaker Amir Muhammad, said it very well in response to the lecturer’s observation, “Maybe he meant that there were no Chinese because everyone there was MALAYSIAN.”

Indeed. Everyone there must have been a Malaysian who cared enough for the country to dare to defy the odds against them, in order to ask for their country to be set right again.

Many of them actually booked rooms in KL hotels the night before so that they would not be locked out of the city on the historic day. Many came from other states one or two days ahead to elude the authorities’ restriction on travel. Many from the outskirts found ways to get into the city center despite the police road blocks and checks, causing massive traffic jams.

Many feared arrest as they made their way to gathering points. I walked with trepidation, with my friends, from KL Sentral to Stadium Merdeka. We passed by policemen stationed along the way. When we got to the stadium vicinity, we found the road to it barricaded so we hung out for a while in Petaling Street. Throughout our wait for the rally to start, we felt a sense of unease; at any time, the FRU could rush us and catch us unawares.

When the march started, many faced the dreaded power of the police as the latter shot water cannons and teargas at the crowd. But whenever the crowd was thus scattered, they regrouped a short while later to carry on the march. Some protestors were chased and beaten up, but spirits were not broken. In the end, nearly 1,700 people were arrested, including the leaders of Bersih 2.0 and those of Opposition parties that had responded to Bersih 2.0’s call to all (including the ruling Barisan Nasional) to join its cause.

Ten thousand is an underestimation of the total crowd size at the rally, although that’s what an online news website puts it at. The police’s estimate of 6,000, on the other hand, is far too few. That puts the 1,700 arrested as being a quarter of their total, which doesn’t seem plausible. The crowd I marched with to Puduraya, at the base of Menara Maybank, was already about 10,000. This did not include the other groups elsewhere at the time.

If there had been no road blocks, no court order barring the leaders from entering certain parts of the city, no restriction on travel from other states to KL, no shutdown of public transport, no fear-mongering, no warnings from sultans to subjects to stay away, many, many more people would have come.

Even so, in spite of all these formidable stumbling blocks, the turnout was fantastic. The people’s belief in the cause overwhelmed their fading belief in the Executive, the Police and, even to a certain extent, the Royalty. And when a people come to lose faith in their country’s institutions, that is when change is inevitable.

The July 9 rally marked a moral victory for Bersih 2.0. And it was a well-deserved one. It proved more than ever to Prime Minister Najib Razak that the people wanted electoral reform – and, more than that, a better government. He and his government would have been spared all this drama if they had read the writing on the wall from the very start.

Last week, when it seemed he had relented by agreeing to let the rally be held in a stadium, he could have still achieved some damage control, but instead his ratings dropped further when his team came up with a Catch-22 that made it impossible for Bersih 2.0 to get the stadium.

Now it seems he’s still rejecting the writing on the wall. He’s still talking tough and trying to put on a brave, even aggressive, front by hastily arranging an unusual gathering called Majlis Penerangan Perdana, attended by reportedly 6,000 Umno members and Malay NGOs, at which he ridiculed the Bersih 2.0 rally and boasted, “Umno has three million members. If we gather one million members, it is more than enough. We can conquer Kuala Lumpur.”

This is pathetically childish behavior for a prime minister. It is as if he is playing the game of ‘Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better’. His need to stage this show of force clearly shows his insecurity. One wonders which adviser of his suggested this move, but the effect of it is more laughable than impressive.

Deep down, Najib is afraid. That explains the paranoia he exuded over the Bersih 2.0 rally before July 9. Now, in its aftermath, neither he nor anyone can stop the reform movement. The wheels of change are already rolling. Even if BN wins the next general election, it will not rest easy.

The knowing Malaysians are already sensitized to BN’s dirty rule and want to have a clean government. They will continue to press for change and reform. If BN tries to stop them by applying repression, it will not frighten or deter them anymore. If one group is put down, another one will rise and take its place.

To BN, Bob Dylan sings:

Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

If BN doesn’t hear that, it will surely sink.

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