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    Southeast Asia
     May 3, 2012

Crackdown resets Malaysian politics
By Anil Netto

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition finds itself on the political defensive after police personnel cracked down on a largely peaceful April 28 protest held in the national capital calling for electoral reforms. The large popular turnout and government's perceived mishandling of the rally will likely push back general elections, earlier expected to be called by June, as Prime Minister Najib Razak's government deals with the fallout.

Reports and images of demonstrators being assaulted by police have been circulated, raising the hackles of international rights groups about the excessive use of force. The country's Bar Council has condemned the violence against unarmed demonstrators while media freedom groups have expressed their


concerns about the targeting of journalists who attempted to document scenes of police brutality.

However, the Associated Press reported officials as saying that three demonstrators and 20 police were injured.

The rally was staged and organized by "Bersih 3.0" (Clean 3.0), a non-partisan coalition of civil society groups calling for clean and fair elections. It was held ahead of anticipated snap polls to air complaints about the integrity of electoral rolls, skewed gerrymandering and allegations that foreigners have been registered as voters. Bersih representatives believe such irregularities have allowed BN and its dominant United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) to win past elections and maintain its uninterrupted grip on power since independence from colonial rule.

Predictably, the government has defended the police's handing of the rally. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said police had acted "professionally" in maintaining security. He said that even though the government had allowed the protesters to gather peacefully, they adamantly forced their way into the Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square.

The police had earlier obtained a court order and barricaded the square with razor-wire to prevent the crowd from entering the symbolic heart of Kuala Lumpur. There were fears among some quarters that a rally on the green could have led to the establishment of a prolonged Tahir Square-style encampment, similar to the one that contributed to the downfall of Egyptian military leader Hosni Mubarak in the so-called Arab Spring.

Until now, Najib has sold his government and economic transformation programs - broad-based initiatives aimed at addressing key areas of economic concern - as leading the nation's transformation into a developed, high-income nation by 2020. Malaysia is currently heavily reliant on cheap migrant labor that has suppressed wages for local workers, resulting in many struggling to deal with the rising cost of living.

After the crackdown, political analysts say, Najib's political programs now face a credibility gap. "Many urbanites are simply not buying what he is selling," said one political observer. "It's gone beyond [the call for] clean elections."

The crackdown could raise more searching popular questions about the credibility, professionalism and independence of the institutions of governance and Najib's commitment to genuine reform.

"As noted by some UMNO leaders, this time the rally showed the level of frustration among the young and middle-class, which suggests that the government is becoming alienated from the mainstream," said Farish Noor, a Malaysian political scientist based in Singapore.

In the run-up to the rally, a public outcry broke out when it was revealed that the supposedly independent Election Commission chairman and his deputy were reportedly members of UMNO. The allegations were made by the opposition People's Justice Party's (PKR) secretary general during an interview with a local newspaper.

The Election Commission deputy chairman has since denied the allegation. Other reports have said that the duo admitted that it was possible they could be members but they were not active in the party due to their jobs.

Opposition leaders who attended the rally, however, did not escape criticism. In particular, they stand accused of trying to hijack the rally after Bersih organizers had asked the crowd to disperse. From Friday evening, when crowds first gathered at Dataran Merdeka, until about 2.45pm on Saturday when the call to disperse was made, the rally had been largely peaceful.

Soon after that the square's security cordon was breached and police responded with force by firing tear gas and water cannons. Further controversy was sparked when news reports and video footage suggested that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and his deputy Azmin Ali allegedly signaled to their party supporters to breach the cordon. The two denied later allegations, saying that their hand signals captured on film were meant as negotiations with police.

Those who rely on state-influenced mainstream media coverage, including urban senior citizens and rural voters, will by now have seen images and read editorials blaming the sporadic violence on Bersih supporters. State-influenced media have dutifully blocked images of police brutality and excessive use of force.

With the ruling coalition relying on rural voters in stronghold states such as Johor, Pahang, Sarawak and Sabah, the test will be how these constituencies view the rally in retrospect. Many may be struggling with their daily existence to care much about reform debates, while government cash handouts ahead of elections may sway their votes as they have in the past.

The challenge for the Anwar-led opposition will be to convince the masses to think about the need for wide-ranging democratic reforms. "Most worrisome is the view that the demands of Bersih 3.0 were superseded by political rhetoric, which suggests that everything is political now," said political scientist Farish, noting that not all Bersih demonstrators are opposition People's Alliance supporters.

He said some of the opposition's political promises were unrealistic "but the divided nature of public opinion also shows that Anwar's supporters still have faith in him." "The [government's] attempts to damage his image have failed and his supporters clearly do not believe or accept the slurs on their idol," said Farish.

Subramaniam Pillay, a Bersih steering committee member and social activist, said the rally's disorder should be put in broad perspective. He said the biggest positive from Bersih 3.0 is that while government agencies with large budgets have failed to create "1Malaysia" - as Najib's drive to promote ethnic harmony and national unity is called - "Bersih has succeeded in uniting Malaysians of all ethnic and religious backgrounds".

If the first and second Bersih rallies in 2007 and last year drew crowds of around 50,000 people on each occasion, independent observers concurred that last weekend's crowd was several times larger. The Bersih Steering Committee put the figure at 250,000 while others estimated the crowd at around 100,000 to 300,000. "Whatever the actual figure," Bersih Steering Committee member Toh Kin Woon observed, "it was large enough to worry Najib."

Thousands more gathered at smaller Bersih solidarity gatherings in almost a dozen cities across the country, while overseas Malaysians, many of them fed up with UMNO and BN policies, held similar rallies in a scores of international cities.

Other domestic protest groups also joined the cause. For instance, large numbers of Himpunan Hijau (Green Assembly) supporters, especially those campaigning against an Australian rare earth refinery built by Lynas Corporation being constructed near the eastern coast city of Kuantan, descended on Kuala Lumpur to join in the Bersih rally. Other observers saw hope for longer-term reforms in the presence of large numbers of young Malaysians.

Strikingly, many among those who attended the rally displayed a distinct lack of fear. In the cat-and-mouse game between police and protestors that lingered on after the organizers had called for participants to disperse, one activist observed how groups at one location laughed mockingly and even danced after water cannons had been fired.

"The freedom from fear argument is compelling," said Malik Imtiaz, a human-rights lawyer. "The police were unprepared for the resoluteness they met, hence the brutality."

The worry for Najib and his ruling UMNO is that if the same popular resolve witnessed at the rally translates into a greater push for political change, the ruling coalition's prospects at the next polls, whenever they are held, could be further dimmed.

Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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