(IPS) – Tens of thousands of people defied riot police, water cannon and pouring rain to march through the capital city, on Saturday, to demand electoral and other reforms and deliver a strong rebuff to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.
On Friday Badawi had issued a stern warning that he would brook no challenge to his rule and officials said anybody around Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), the planned venue of the protest gathering, would be arrested.
That made the turnout of over 50,000 people, sloshing through muddy grass verges by the highway, all the more impressive as they engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with police armed with water cannons and batons.
Demonstrators have been streaming into the city over the past two days in cars and buses despite police roadblocks. It was the biggest demonstration Kuala Lumpur has seen since an impromptu highway protest in 2000, at the height of the reformasi (pro-reform) movement.
This time, a few of the old familiar faces were there in the crowd — along with younger Malaysians. But the chants were a little different: ‘‘Bersih, bersih (Clean up, clean up)!’’; ‘‘Daulat Tuanku (Long live the King)!’’; ‘‘Hidup Rakyat (Long live the people)!’’ — apart from the original battle cry, ‘‘Reformasi!’’
Quick-witted organisers outfoxed the police. When the police cordons and water cannons made the original venue and four alternative nearby venues difficult to reach, organisers decided to lead the crowd straight to the palace to submit a memorandum. Along the highway, however, riot police blocked the route to the palace. But tens of thousands of demonstrators took over the entire highway, blocking traffic and sitting down on the road in an hour-long standoff with riot police perched atop their red trucks.
Overhead the clatter from two helicopters drowned out parts of the opposition leaders’ speeches. After some negotiations, several opposition party leaders were allowed to walk through riot police lines to submit a joint memorandum to a palace official representing the Yang Di Pertuan Agong (Malaysia’s paramount constitutional monarch).
For days, police and ruling coalition officials had warned the public not to take part in the demonstrations, which they deemed illegal because a permit that the organisers had applied for had been denied. The rally was organised by Bersih (Clean), a coalition of 60 civil society organisations supported by five opposition parties demanding electoral reforms.
Internet websites and blogs such as Malaysia Today played a major role in publicising the event. Bersih is demanding the use of indelible ink to mark voters who have already cast their ballots, a clean up of the electoral rolls, an end to postal votes (used mainly by police and military personnel and often favouring the ruling coalition), and fair access to the media for all parties during election campaigns. The Election Commission had earlier conceded to the demand for indelible ink.
Opposition politicians and activists have complained in the past of phantom voters, vote-buying, unfair redrawing of constituency boundaries, unfair media coverage, and transfers of voters from one area to another.
It was difficult to estimate the actual turnout as thousands were gathered in spots all over central Kuala Lumpur trying to join the main crowd. Many entered the city by light rail trains as roads to the city were jammed due to roadblocks and checkpoints. About half of them were clad in yellow T shirts, representing the colour of press freedom — and also the colour of Malaysia’s royalty. The demonstrators were good natured and peaceful. They waved at sullen-faced riot police armed with machine guns and batons in passing trucks and they waved defiantly at the two helicopters buzzing overhead.
‘‘What,10,000? 20,000? 50,000? 100,000 or more? It doesn’t matter. The point is, we made our point,’’ said Atsanee, a visitor who left a comment on the Malaysia Today website-cum-blog. “And we saw the Police and FRU (riot police) manning all the entry points to the city. They actually paralysed the city because of their own fear.’’ And what was the point? ‘‘The demonstrators have sent the strongest message (to the Abdullah administration) that we need free and fair elections,’’ human rights campaigner Latheefa Koya told IPS outside the National Mosque, where the crowd later converged.
Apart from the tear-gassing by the police, the rally was peaceful, well-organised and attended by people from all walks of life, she observed. Over 20 people were arrested although a few were reportedly released shortly after. But it was not just about electoral reforms, as people turned up for a host of pent-up grievances. ‘‘It’s a show of strength about the unhappiness about the state of governance… the racialism, the corruption, the state of the judiciary and the threats to arrest people,’’ said women’s rights activist Cecilia Ng.
Many are also finding the rising cost of living, including higher food and fuel prices, tough to bear. ‘‘It is because the Barisan Nasional (ruling coalition) government does not want the people of Malaysia to witness how upset and unhappy many Malaysians are … that is the sole reason that they had brought in their mighty strength represented by the police and the FRU with the sole purpose of disrupting the gathering,’’ said P. Ramakrishnan, president of the country’s oldest human rights group, ‘Aliran’.
‘‘What took place today was a peaceful, democratic and legitimate exercise undertaken by concerned Malaysians to seek a remedy for our tainted, lopsided elections.’’ The truth is that there has never been equal opportunity to fight clean and fair in the general elections, which the ruling United Malays National Organisation has always won since Independence, he pointed out. ‘‘It has been always tilted in favour of the Barisan Nasional, which abuses state facilities and state coffers to entice the electorate — and that must be seen by any impartial observer as clearly constituting corruption.’’
Rally defies police ban to demand poll reforms