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.