Malays in Melee

Bersih, the Malaysian movement for clean government, defied police lockdowns and staged an impressive demonstration.

Amiel Ungar, | updated: 23:12

Prime Minister Najib Razak
Prime Minister Najib Razak

Malaysia's Bersih (literally clean) Movement combining 62 NGOs and opposition groups staged a massive demonstration on Saturday in Kuala Lumpur that is meant as a prelude to national elections expected next year.

Bersih wants to ensure that the next national elections will be fair. The opposition hopes to follow-up its relative success in the 2008 elections where it denied the ruling Barisan Nasional party a two thirds majority for the first time since 1969. In those elections the opposition increased the number of states under its control from one to four.

As a result of its poor showing, Barisan, in power for 54 consecutive years, replaced Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi with the current leader Najib Razak. The opposition believes that the 2008 breakthrough would have been even more substantial if the field had not been tilted in favor of the government party.

The opposition wants voters to be stamped with indelible ink to prevent repeat voting, the cleaning up a voter registration lists to prevent the dead and departed from voting, tougher regulations on postal voting likewise a temptation for vote fraud, and a fair shake from the state media.

The demonstration did not receive the required permits and therefore was declared illegal, but the opposition decided to go ahead, following protracted negotiations between the government and opposition, where the government acted in a duplicitous fashion.

Bersih was willing to forgo a street demonstration provided they could stage a rally in historic Merdeka Stadium, where independence was declared in 1957. After an agreement was ostensibly reached, use of the stadium was denied on the grounds that the stadium was undergoing renovations.

Then the cabinet decided to ban Bersih from holding any rally in the vicinity of the capital Kuala Lumpur. In the eastern state of Sabah, Bersih had already booked a hall when it was told that its reservation was cancelled and money refunded.

Bersih decided to go back to the street rally and the government responded with repressive force. 1600 protesters were arrested, opposition leaders detained and since yellow was the symbol of the opposition, people with the misfortune of wearing yellow shirts were taken into custody.

Human rights organizations protested and the government-controlled media claimed that blackening the good name of the country was the actual intent of the demonstrators.