The Star: Time for damage control

Sunday September 16, 2007
The opposition party ceramah in Terengganu that went seriously wrong will have political implications for both PAS and Umno even as they blame each other and the police.

SENATOR Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh was initially quite amused to learn that he had been accused of being the “hidden hand” behind the ceramah clash in Terengganu last weekend.
But by mid-week, he had lost his patience and grown quite irritated with the repeated accusations.
“How did I get dragged into this? I had nothing to do with it,” he said.
The accusation emanated from no less than one of PAS’ most influential figures, Datuk Mustafa Ali who is also the party’s Terengganu chief. Mustafa had openly alleged that Wan Farid was one of those behind last Saturday’s trouble.
The British-trained lawyer is a rising star in Terengganu and also the political secretary to Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in his Internal Security Minister portfolio.
PAS politicians claimed that Wan Farid had met police personnel earlier on the day of the ceramah.
He did, actually, but as the VIP guest at the Police Open Day in the police residential complex at 11am in Ladang about 5km away. He had made a short speech at the function and given away prizes for the futsal game and cooking contest.
“I was there for about an hour and about 400 people saw me there. Then I left for another appointment. For them to implicate me shows how desperate they are to shift the blame,” said Wan Farid.
There has been no shortage of explanations and theories over what happened in Batu Buruk and the blame game is still going on.
This was no ordinary clash because live bullets were used on an unarmed crowd and two men were shot.
The opposition parties, led by PAS, blamed the police for the clash and accused Umno of allegedly masterminding it.
Umno on its part has painted the opposition parties, especially PAS and their supporters, as unruly, desperate for a way out of the quagmire and disrespectful of the law.
A string of police reports have been lodged by both sides and two of those injured are still hospitalised.
Parliamentarians have traded accusations over it at the current session of Parliament and the human rights body Suhakam has agreed to a fact-finding mission.
People in Kuala Terengganu are still shocked and have not been able to stop talking about it.
Few anticipated trouble even though the organisers had decided to go ahead without a police permit.
Apparently, the authorities have not allowed political gatherings in Batu Buruk for some time now.
The last ceramah there, which featured Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, took place several months ago. That ceramah also did not have a permit but a compromise was struck and it ended at 11pm instead of the usual midnight.
The authorities say they want to keep political activity away from the area which is a tourist spot with beach hotels and a stunning vista of the South China Sea. It is also an elite residential address that includes the palace of the King’s mother, home of the High Court judge as well as top civil servants.
The ceramah was to launch the Terengganu chapter of Bersih, an electoral reform coalition of political parties and NGOs.
The police suggested that it be held in Rusila, the stronghold of PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang. But the PAS side, which applied for the permit, was unwilling because non-PAS supporters would not go to Rusila and they wanted to attract a mixed crowd.
Some claimed the stage was set for trouble when the authorities dismantled the stage erected by the organisers.
“When I returned from work at about 5.30pm, I saw that the structure had been demolished but everything was still calm,” said Dr Manaf Che Mat, a medical doctor who lives in the area.
Not long after that, police road blocks went up at the main routes leading to the area. But the violence began after 10pm when people were arrested, stones and Molotov cocktails were thrown, garbage bins set on fire and the national flag torched. Then there was the shooting incident.
Technically, the clash took place between the police and ceramah goers. But the incident has acquired a political life of its own given the local politics and the use of the shooting controversy.
Both sides have given their version of the incident.
“There is no damage to Umno. This thing is between the police and PAS. They are trying to get attention because they are facing diminished support in the state. People can see what kind of party PAS is. We are celebrating 50 years of Merdeka, raising the Jalur Gemilang everywhere and they burn it. It’s a tragedy,” said Terengganu information chief and Kemaman MP Datuk Ahmad Shabery Chik.
PAS, said Ahmad Shabery, had also broken the law and challenged the police by holding the ceramah without a permit.
“They should just admit they are in the wrong,” he said.
PAS think-tank head Dr Zulkifli Ahmad, on the other hand, accused Umno of “decapitation politics.”
“They know the opposition parties are feeling very bullish about the general election so they want to cut us off, portray us as violent, bad for the image of the country and a deterrent to investors. Their story line keeps changing. First one bullet fired, then they say two and now four,” said Dr Zulkifli.
PAS leaders have also asked for the person who was photographed burning the national flag to be identified.
The picture, published in all the newspapers, showed a youngish man in a long-sleeved sweatshirt, blue jeans and sandals setting fire to the flag.
“We are not making excuses about the flag. We want to know whether he is one of our members, a member of the public, plainclothes policeman or just a plain trouble-maker,” said Zulkifli.
The police have insisted that their stand has been not to react unless provoked. The state police chief had said that the constable who shot at rioters who attacked him was only trying to protect a group of women and children.
“The incident has given the opposition a bullet to aim at us. Even the use of tear gas is not good. This is Terengganu, not some big, bad city. PAS had few issues in the state but they are going to capitalise on this and put us on the defensive,” said Datuk Wan Albakri Mohd Noor, a Terengganu-based businessman with close ties to Umno.
Moreover, said Wan Albakri, the Mentri Besar Datuk Idris Jusoh had worked hard to bring about balance and confidence in the state.
Idris, who is in Mecca doing his umrah, has without a doubt done a far better job than PAS’ Hadi.
PAS is already riding on the ceramah clash.
During a PAS ceramah in Machang, Kelantan, on Tuesday, slides of the incident were displayed as well as the picture of the man who was shot in the chest as he lay in the ICU under an oxygen mask. It was a very emotive image.
There will be political damage to both sides.
In the last few years, PAS had been trying hard to cultivate an image as a national party with aspirations to federal power. It has eschewed NGO-type of behaviour for more mainstream action on many issues.
As such, the incident is a setback of sorts for its image, especially outside of Terengganu. But the use of firearms has not gone down well with the local folk for whom political ceramahs are a way of life.
As for Umno, Idris had been running such a tight ship that some Umno politicians were even talking of a clean sweep.
The Barisan Nasional controls 28 of the 32 state seats and had been confident of sweeping the other four seats in the next general election. They are probably less sure now.
Politics is often not so much about who is speaking the truth than about perception. As such, there will be some collateral damage on Umno as well even though the issue is technically between the police and the opposition.
The Malay belt is highly politicised and Idris will have to do some very shrewd damage control if Umno wants to maintain its near perfect record in the state. Calm before the storm: Idris (second from left) probably had no idea of the storm ahead when he joined a reef clean-up in the calm blue waters off Terengganu but he will have to do some shrewd damage control in the weeks ahead. Mustafa: Alleged that Umno played a role in last week’s clash. Shabery: Slammed PAS for breaking law and burning national flag. Wan Farid: PAS is desperate to shift the blame for their mistake.