x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Malaysian crackdown ahead of mass rally planned by Bersih

Pro-government groups are planning counter protests and police have warned the public to stay away from the centre of Kuala Lumpur.

Police cordon off Merdeka square in Kuala Lumpur yesterday on the eve of a mass rally by Bersih 2.0 calling for electoral reform. Saeed Khan / AFP
Police cordon off Merdeka square in Kuala Lumpur yesterday on the eve of a mass rally by Bersih 2.0 calling for electoral reform. Saeed Khan / AFP

Afraid of its own "Tahrir Square", the Malaysian government is cracking down hard ahead of a massive anti-government protest originally planned for today at Kuala Lumpur's Independence Stadium.

Organisers of Bersih (Bahasa Malayu for clean) have been detained, pro-government media outlets are warning of trouble, police checkpoints have been set up all the way to Singapore and Malaysians are being arrested just for wearing yellow T-shirts, the emblem of Bersih 2.0.

Perhaps most worryingly, for a protest that is yet to happen, authorities are warning editors to focus on the lawlessness of the protesters and ignore police violence.

Despite relatively strong growth - forecast at more than five per cent in 2011 - Malaysia is a country in crisis.

Political dissent is rising, there is a strong brain-drain at the top and a new outward flow of unskilled migrant workers at the bottom, ethnic divisions are growing, driven by the skewed polices of the Mahathir doctrine, there is no rule of law and corruption is endemic.

Inflation is officially a little more than three per cent, but traders say food prices are rising 20 to 30 per cent a year. And there is growing resentment among Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous people alike that the wealth is not being shared.

"It's not a failed state - yet. But it's a failing state," said a former senior official of the Malaysian Chinese Association, one of the leading parties in the ruling Barisan Nasional led by the United Malays National Organisation, (UMNO).

"Mahathir's policies of division and dumping down the population have ruined this country," he added, referring to the prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir Mohamad.

"They [the government] are terrified of a Malaysian Tahrir Square", or a repeat of May 13, 1969 Malaysian riots that resulted in the deaths of at least 190 people. "They will do anything, anything to stop that."

Bersih is an umbrella group for dozens of non-governmental organisations, set up to press for free and fair elections. The last Bersih protest brought more than 40,000 people on to the streets. Organisers are hoping for 100,000 today.

They have chosen the royal yellow as a mark of respect to the monarchy and the nation, rather than the government.

As some in Kuala Lumpur stocked up on food and water ahead of the rally, King Mizan Zainal Abidin made an unprecedented political intervention in a country where the monarchy, which rotates among the nine sultans, is largely ceremonial.

At his request, the protest will now be confined to a stadium. But the government and Bersih are locked in a row over just where the protest, declared illegal by authorities, can be held and the compromise does nothing to address the deeper problems facing the country.

Pro-government groups are planning counter protests today and police have warned the public to stay away from the centre of the city, where rally organisers plan to protest at Sadium Merdeka (Independence) despite being barred by the authorities.

The extent and vehemence of coverage of Bersih by pro-government media is a clear sign the government, already only precariously holding on to power, is deeply worried.

"They are afraid, terrified," said the former MCA official. "This is not about re-establishing their power, it's about saving their fate."

Rattled by a poor showing for the once dominant UMNO and Barisan Nasional in the 2008 election, its worst performance since independence in 1957 and which saw the loss for the first time of the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to make constitutional changes, and falling popularity, The prime minister, Najib Razak, is now expected to call elections as soon as October, more than a year early.

UMNO and Barisan Nasional are slowly losing their grip, observers said. "They are not on the ground. They don't know what is going on," said Pang Khee Teik, the director of the Annexe Gallery, a space where art meets dissidence.

"They have no ... idea."

Najib, son of Tun Razak who rose to power in the turmoil after the 1969 race riots, riots which still very much colour the Malaysian psyche and politics, epitomises the new Malay dilemma.

He rules a wealthy country where many rights groups say the money stays in the hands of the elite, he oversees a social engineering project designed to unite but which divides, spends billions on infrastructure that does not work and where corruption is endemic.

"Change is coming. Coming soon," said the former MCA official. "We only do not know what or how."