Apr 10 2012
Visitors to Kuala Lumpur in late April should be aware that the city is bracing itself for what could be one of the largest political demonstrations in its history. A massive sit-down protest is planned at Merdeka Square (Dataran Merdeka) on Saturday the 28th, from 14:00 to 16:00, to call for free and fair elections in Malaysia.
It is the third mass rally called by a coalition of NGOs known as Bersih (“clean” in Malay) over recent years, pushing for an end to an electoral system riddled with serious irregularities. Bersih has eight key demands: clean up the electoral roll; reform the postal ballot; use indelible ink for voters; a minimum 21-day campaign period; free and fair access to media; strengthen public institutions; stop corruption; and stop dirty politics.
The last mass protest, Bersih 2.0 in July 2011, saw a heavy-handed response from the authorities, with the police using baton charges, water cannons and tear gas. Dozens of people were injured, and about 1,600 arrested.
Since then, the government has promised changes to the laws on peaceful assembly, and umpteen small protests have passed off peacefully. The police even adopted a softly-softly approach towards the thousands of supporters of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who gathered in early January to hear the verdict in the latest court case against him.
Anwar was acquitted, much to the delight of the crowd, but the celebrations were cut short by three small bomb blasts in quick succession. Five people were injured in the explosions, none seriously. It is a warning that attending a political rally in Malaysia does come with risks, even if the police are not being confrontational.
Whether the government will adopt the same heavy-handed tactics with Bersih 3.0 as with its predecessor is anyone’s guess. But an early indication is that the protest was declared illegal within hours of it being announced. The main worry for visitors, apart from being baton charged/tear gassed/water cannoned/arrested, is that KL will face a similar “shutdown” to last July, when major road and rail links were blocked by the police.
Adding extra spice to this rally is the knowledge that the next general election, or GE13 as it is known in this acronym-loving country, is just months away. With free and fair polls, Malaysia could well see its first democratic change of government since independence in 1957. But after more than five decades in power, the ruling UMNO and its coalition partners are in no mood to abandon an electoral system which has served them so well. As the saying goes, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.
UPDATE (April 30): To see how the day turned out, follow this link.
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