Malaysia nips an hibiscus uprising
By Simon Roughneen
KUALA LUMPUR - Prime Minister Najib Razak's government is on the defensive
after Malaysia's biggest opposition-aligned protest in almost four years was
put down forcefully on Saturday by riot police, water-cannons and teargas in
the national capital.
Over 1,600 people were arrested in the crackdown, including opposition leader
Anwar Ibrahim and the leadership of the protest organizers, Bersih 2.0, a
coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking reform of the
country's electoral system.
As the dust settled and Malaysians assessed the longer-term impact of the
rally, Najib praised the police's firm response to what he deemed an "illegal"
gathering, while Anwar warned of a "hibiscus revolution" - referring to
Malaysia's national flower - unless the electoral system is overhauled and
undertaken. Protesters said that one man died from a heart attack after fleeing
teargas, a claim disputed by police who say the fatality was unrelated to the
Bersih organizers and independent analysts believe Malaysia's electoral system
is skewed in favor of the United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), which
heads the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and has held power
uninterrupted since Malaysia achieved independence in 1957. In particular,
Bersih has called for a cleaning up of electoral rolls and equal access to
state media for opposition parties. The UMNO-led government dominates
Malaysia's mainstream media, which predictably took the government's side in
reporting on Saturday's protest and crackdown.
A similar protest in 2007 elicited a similar heavy-handed government response,
including the arrest of several demonstrators. Some analysts believe that
crackdown helped turn popular opinion in favor of the three-party People's
Alliance opposition, comprised of Anwar's reformist Parti Keadilan Rakyat
(PKR), the Islamist PAS and the secular Chinese-led Democratic Action Party
The opposition made significant gains at the 2008 general elections, denying
UMNO the two-thirds parliamentary majority its coalition traditionally has
held. The result was a massive blow to UMNO, denting its aura of invincibility
and suggesting that an alternative government was possible.
The opposition won 47% of the popular vote and took control of five of the
country's 13 states at those polls and soon after aimed to bring down the
government through parliamentary defections. Those defections never
materialized and the BN has won in various by-elections held since 2008.
The Anwar-led opposition has lost some traction due to infighting, including
over issues such as sharia law, and Anwar's new legal troubles on sodomy
charges. Sodomy is a crime in Muslim-majority Malaysia and Anwar has denied the
charges, which have successfully shifted public attention away from earlier
opposition-led reform debates.
Yet the weekend's protest and government crackdown are expected to give the
People's Alliance a new lift ahead of general elections that some analysts
believe Najib will call within this year to pre-empt an expected slowdown in
the economy next year. Some say the crackdown has underscored UMNO's
authoritarian roots, despite policies implemented by Najib in recent years to
soften its public image.
In the days leading up to July 9, police arrested over 250 Bersih supporters,
claiming that they were "waging war against the king". That did not deter the
country's monarch, known officially as the "Yang di Pertuan Agong", or "Agong",
from making a rare political intervention by meeting with Bersih leader Ambiga
Sreenevasan. Taken by some as a tacit acknowledgement of Bersih's agenda by the
Agong, the protesters changed their original plan to march though Kuala Lumpur
and agreed instead to rally at the Merdeka Stadium.
The government flip-flopped its earlier position and along with police sought
to move the rally outside the city to blunt its impact. Kuala Lumpur was under
police lockdown by Friday afternoon, with roadblocks on all main routes into
the city and close to landmark locations where protesters were expected to
By Friday evening, streets across the city were eerily quiet and on Saturday
morning the tourist magnet Bukit Bintang area was almost empty, with incessant
fire alarms lending a post-apocalypse feel to the usually-bustling city.
By noon on Saturday at the Negara and Jamek mosques, where the rally organizers
hoped to commence a march to the Merdeka Stadium, media initially seemed to
outnumber protesters with police making random searches and arrests of people
in a nearby bazaar.
Looking on from the train station across from the Jamek mosque, a man giving
his name as Azhar said that "we will pray first and then we will demonstrate".
Asked where all the protesters were, he said that "we are around, you will see
us later when we have enough numbers to march".
At 1:30 pm, a group of around 2,000 supporters of the Malaysian Islamist
opposition party PAS emerged onto the streets about a half-kilometer away from
the Jamek mosque. They were marching toward Merdeka Square, which was blocked
off by police, and chanting "Reformasi" and "Down with Najib".
The group was stopped by a volley of teargas rounds fired by riot police within
two minutes of turning the corner toward the square. Squaring with protestor
allegations that police fired teargas directly at the crowd, the protesters
were given little or no warning before it was fired, with the canisters landing
in the middle of the throng.
As witnessed by Asia Times Online, the main protest area then moved to the
Central Market area and adjacent streets of the city, where the numbers swelled
throughout the afternoon despite repeated tear gas and water cannon attacks by
riot police, some of whom ran toward the protesters to arrest people wearing
yellow t-shirts or anything resembling the proscribed attire of the Bersih 2.0
Pools of blue-green tinted water sloshed around on the streets after police
fired water-cannons at the demonstrators, who claimed that the water fired from
the police cannons was laced with chemicals.
According to the police, no more than 6,000 people took part in the protest,
while Bersih 2.0 claims that 50,000 people turned out. Asia Times Online
observations estimated the protester numbers were higher than the
implausibly-low official figure, while other independent assessments put the
figure at between 10,000 and 20,000.
Significantly, the protesters were racially mixed, including ethnic Malays,
Chinese-Malaysians and Indian-Malaysians, the three main ethnic groups in a
country where politics are often played on racial lines.
It was unclear how many of the protesters were members or supporters of
opposition parties and how many were unaffiliated citizens disaffected with the
electoral system. According to Sivarasa Rasiah, an opposition member of
parliament and vice president of Anwar's PKR who was arrested on Saturday, the
rally "was a spirited multiracial and peaceful crowd who came and went in peace
for the cause of bringing about free and fair elections".
By this correspondent's observations, the rally was mainly peaceful, save for a
few incidents of protesters lobbing water bottles at riot police trucks. The
government's harsh response to a demonstration that on the surface at least
merely sought electoral reforms comes down to the ruling party's fears of a
"Malaysian Spring", according to Ooi Kee Beng, a Singapore-based Malaysian
scholar at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies.
"Memories of how the first Bersih demonstration in 2007, which created the
impetus that almost dethroned the Barisan Nasional, must still rankle deeply in
the psyche of the government," he said.
On the eve of the rally, with commuters hurrying home as the city went quiet, a
Chinese-Malaysian government employee interviewed near the University of Malaya
said that he disagreed with the Bersih rally. Refusing to give his name, the
man - who said he was a DAP voter - said that the rally "seems to be directed
by the opposition and looks like a distraction from Anwar's trial".
The BN leadership has pushed a similar line, mixing claims about the cultural
inappropriateness of street demonstrations with allegations that Bersih's
electoral reform agenda was driven by opposition politics. Najib told reporters
that "We dislike chaos. We like peace. We like a country where the people live
in harmony." They were lines that could have come from Malaysia's long-time
former authoritarian premier, Mahathir Mohamad.
According to Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, the protest was a front for
the parliamentary opposition rather than a citizen-driven demand for electoral
reform. "They [protesters] shouted 'Reformasi' and wreaked havoc," he claimed
That the demonstration took place at all was a testimony to the protesters'
determination in the face of a police lockdown, though whether it proves to be
a game-changer in Malaysia's politics remains to be seen. According to Choong
Pui Yee, a research analyst from the Rajaratnam School of International Studies
in Singapore, the rally "caused more harm to Najib's administration and has
shown how defiant the people are".
Taking to the streets might therefore be seen as a viable unifying political
strategy ahead of the next elections, which must be held by 2013. Greg Lopez, a
regular commentator on Malaysian politics for the New Mandala blog, told Asia
Times Online that Malaysian opposition groups are now "willing to go to the
wire in the face of threat" and warned of a "Thai-situation" with PAS saying
that it will continue demonstrations until reforms are carried out.
Najib has since called on a "silent majority" to continue to support the BN,
and claims that he could stage a far bigger rally than anything the opposition
could mount - though presumably a BN rally would not be declared illegal in
advance or stymied by police action. Najib's approval ratings have risen since
2008, according to some opinion polls, driving speculation he could call polls
later this year.
Analyst Choong Pui Yee says that the July 9 rally "does not necessarily mean
the opposition will win in the next general election, but the BN government
will definitely face much stronger opposition voices from opposition parties
and the civil society".
Simon Roughneen is a foreign correspondent. His website is
All pictures by Simon Roughneen, and Copyright 2011 Simon Roughneen.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)