Crackdown lowered rally numbers but made Malaysian government look bad, reports Asia Sentinel
Although Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak appears to have won the battle by closing down Kuala Lumpur on Saturday and arresting 1,667 mostly peaceful marchers and would-be marchers, the consensus seems to be that Malaysia has suffered a blow to its international reputation as a moderate, democratic country.
Bersih 2.0, as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections is known, appears to have won on points. a wan-lookng Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, the head of the three-party Pakatan Rakyat, was photographed in his hospital bed where he was kept for observation, a neat coup de theatre whether intended or not.
While it didn’t draw anywhere close to the 100,000 people Bersih’s leaders forecast, they can claim that the police intimidation kept marchers away. Crowd estimates ranged from 10,000 by the government to 50,000 by Bersih. Pictures of marchers being chased by baton-wielding police and hosed down by water cannon have made most of the world’s major newspapers and the story was given prominent on-line coverage by Al Jazeera. Despite the fact that Bersih is an umbrella group of 62 non-government organizations, with a great many Chinese and Indian faces rather than Muslim ones, the march has been tied internationally to the Jasmine Revolutions of the Middle East, with at least one blog — Time Magazine’s Hannah Beech — even alluding to opposition leaders hoping for the smell of jasmine.
The crackdown, which included razor wire strung at strategic entry points to the city, legions of police, tear gas, water cannon and truncheons, is especially embarrassing given Malaysia’s membership on the United Nations Human Rights Council. To prove it is supported by the electorate, however, the government has promised a massive counter-rally that will draw hundreds of thousands of supporters, which probably will not be accompanied by water cannons, truncheons, tear gas, razor wire and legions of police intended to keep marchers away.
The Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, characterized the Bersih 2.0 march as a tool of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, and indeed top Pakatan leaders did show up and were duly arrested. It also alleged that the US was behind a plot to destabilize the country through the National Endowment for Democracy, which gives money to Bersih. The NED is a private, non-profit foundation funded by the US Congress whose ostensible aim is to support democratic goals.
Often the government’s tactics seemed a puzzling throwback to previous arguments. In the run-up to the march itself, police arrested 30 members of the Malaysian Socialist Party on June 26 and charged them with seeking to overthrow the country’s monarchy and make a hero of Chin Peng, the elderly one-time leader of the Communist insurgency against British Malaya who remains in exile. Last week, police held a press conference to announce they had found caches of machetes and Molotov cocktails secreted around Kuala Lumpur along with yellow Bersih tee-shirts, leaving the question open why Bersih members would leave the shirts with the weapons to identify them as violent when they professed to be peaceful marchers. The caches of weapons were mostly dismissed as a dirty trick.