AS TENS of thousands of Malaysians took to the streets of the capital on Saturday to protest for free and fair elections, the organiser of the event sat in a windowless prison cell contemplating an uncertain future.
Bersih 5, the mass protest that took place in Kuala Lumpur, went off without a hitch.
The movement had clear and defined objectives; clean elections, a clean government, strengthening parliamentary democracy, the right to dissent, and the empowering of Sabah and Sarawak. They also had an explicit desire to ensure that the demonstrations were peaceful; a request that was adhered to by supporters on the day.
One day prior to the march, Maria Chin Abdullah, leader of the Bersih 2.0 movement and organiser of the event, was arrested under the Special Offences (Security Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) for an offence under Section 124C of the Penal Code that prohibits the attempt to commit activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.
While no government likes to find itself faced with demonstrations questioning its integrity and policies, to imprison those conducting peaceful protests is more of an affront to democracy than the protests themselves could ever pose.
Rather than being imprisoned for threatening democracy, Chin should be praised for stoking the fire that truly drives it.
Political protest is absolutely essential to democracy and demonstrations such as these must be seen as an integral part of political action in a democratic society.
For many people, taking to the streets is the only real power they can wield in the current political environment of lobbyists and nepotism. This form of direct action gives voice to those with no platform or privilege and is vital in a country with such a dominant ruling party. It is not the demonstrations themselves that should be of concern, but it is the consistent action by the Najib government to de-legitimise political protest that is truly worrying. Chin’s arrest is just another example of this.
If this demonisation of protest continues, from government officials to Jakim, then we risk losing the only available avenue to hold the government to account and to press issues of importance.
Throughout history, countless significant gains have been achieved through protests similar to those we saw in Malaysia over the weekend.
More often than not, just as we see in this case, these activists were seen as unruly delinquents and a threat to democracy. Many of these influential campaigns, such as the suffragettes and the civil rights movement, were denounced by government at the time but as perspectives shift and the message takes hold, those values for which they fought then become the norm.
Once society progresses and a population has embraced those values of the protesters it is difficult to find a politician who won’t agree. No doubt when – or if – the opposition comes to power in Malaysia, Maria Chin Abdullah will be praised for her dedication and resolve. But until then, we have an administration set on marginalising campaigners and criminalising dissent.
Far from being a sign of a broken democracy, protests should be welcomed as the voice of the people and governments need to allow those voices to be heard. It is when a society has no protests at all that democracy is truly in peril. Without them, injustices remain unchallenged and people lose confidence in the system.
Rather than incarcerating those responsible under the guise of threatening democracy, we should be supporting them as champions of it.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent