In early July, while eyes were on the unrest in the Middle East, another democratic movement was gathering momentum in Southeast Asia. Borne out of growing discontent with the ruling government, the people of Malaysia were experiencing their own awakening. Their movement for electoral reform, known as “Bersih” (meaning “clean” in the Malay language), reached critical mass on July 9, when an estimated 47,000 people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, demanding action against voter fraud, press freedom and an end to “dirty politics”—slander and incessant claims and counterclaims of supposed sexual misconduct. The rally provoked an unprecedented government crackdown, widely condemned by international human rights agencies, leading to the arrests of more than 1,600 people. Police action has continued, with people frequently detained for as little as wearing a yellow T-shirt—a symbol of support for the outlawed Bersih movement.
The reform movement has been growing since 2005, when a group of politicians and non-governmental organizations, dismayed at the level of fraud and corruption in the Malaysian political system, came together to form the Joint Action Committee for Electoral Reform. When the movement was revived in 2010 as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih 2.0—the now familiar moniker of the reform movement—the organizers made a strategic decision to exclude all political parties, including members of the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat. Bersih 2.0 emerged as nonpartisan, civil society movement to monitor progress towards electoral reform.
Without the involvement of political parties, organizers had to find other means to reach out to mobilize their supporters. “We planned all these roadshows at the nationwide level,” says Maria Chin Abdullah, whose organization EMPOWER serves as the secretariat for the Bersih 2.0 Coalition, which would “entail us going to various states to explain the fifteen demands we had and why we prioritized eight of them.” But the police took a harsh position against protestors. “Before we could even start our roadshow, they already arrested about thirty people,” Chin Abdullah explains.
With direct attempts to reach out to the public thwarted by the police, the movement took to social media. Facebook became the main source of information about the July 9 rally in Kuala Lumpur, and the Twitterverse lit up. A new generation, well-versed in the advantages of online activism and emboldened by the relative anonymity of social media, took courage from protestors across the Middle East and came forward to support the movement. On July 9, the number of Twitter users talking about the Bersih rally reached 19,188, according to the website Politweet. Both online and offline, many thousands of supporters wanted to make their voices heard despite the threat of the government’s harsh preventative laws like the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), frequently and arbitrarily applied to suppress dissent.
Many Malaysians feel they are powerless to change their government, yet the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, which has held power since the formation of the Federation of Malaya in 1957, is clearly uneasy. The Minister of Home Affairs, Hishammuddin Hussein, outlawed Bersih for spreading seditious propaganda and for “affecting the harmony of a multicultural society.” The police refused to grant a permit for the “Bersih 2.0” rally, and government ministers denounced the rally and its organizers.
The government has also attempted to discredit the rally and its organizers by suggesting that the movement’s real goal is to cause disharmony and racial strife. Fear of igniting racial tensions among the country’s three dominant ethnic groups—Malay, Chinese and Indian—frequently colors the political rhetoric of Malaysia. References to the race riots that swept across Malaysia in 1969, leaving an estimated 169 people dead, are often cited as a warning to Malaysians who threaten the status quo, and are used to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Anil Netto, a Malaysian journalist who frequently writes on behalf of the reform group Aliran, explains that the government’s tactics are erratic, and increasingly ineffective. “Initially they were speaking of foreign powers, the next day about communism, another day that Christian groups were getting involved. Many can by now see through these tactics and they are not carrying as much weight as they might have in the past.” And attempts by the government to frame the rally as a threat to racial harmony appear to be unfounded—the movement cuts across racial and religious groups.
”What was good about Bersih 2.0 rally, as everyone now knows, is that it brought out a more multi-racial component,” says Chin Abdullah. “It’s actually a Malaysian rally.” It’s also a movement in which women have played a leading role: Ambiga Sreenevasan, a lawyer and former chairwoman of the Malaysian Bar Council, is the leader of the Bersih movement, and a recipient of the US State Department International Women of Courage award in 2009; and Maria Chin Abdullah, a central figure in the Malaysian women’s rights movement, is head of the Bersih Secretariat. Support also came from an unexpected quarter when Marina Mahathir, daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, attended the rally.
The government likely fears that the movement will result in electoral gains by the opposition in the 2012 election. After Bersih’s first rally, in 2007, the opposition coalition gained control of five of Malaysia’s thirteen states in the 2008 general election, a victory commonly dubbed a “political tsunami.” “The government probably knows that these kind of reforms will strike at the heart of the current electoral process which has returned them to power since independence,” says Netto.
Ironically, the government has only served to fuel public anger and provided the Bersih movement with all the publicity they could need. “To be honest, we didn’t even need the roadshows to raise the publicity of Bersih 2.0, the government did the publicity for us,” says Chin Abdullah. “In spite of all the attacks, the intimidation, the fear, that the government has put in, from race to violence to chaos and all that, the people have actually decided that they want to come forward to join this rally,” Chin Abdullah continues. “No more being the silent majority. We are hoping that from here it will be a stepping stone towards a formation in the future of a more democratic movement in Malaysia.”