Malaysian voters, civil society groups and opposition parties are waiting to see how the Barisan Nasional responds to the clamour for free and fair elections and democratic rights, writes Angeline Loh.
The peaceful demonstration by the Bersih coalition demanding fair and free elections, a section of which was violently dispersed at Masjid Jamek with police water cannon and tear-gas, is an event that will go down in history.
This is the day the ruling Barisan Nasional showed its true colours to the world.
This is the day when Malaysia officially proclaimed to the world that the government was against democracy, justice, human rights and peace.
This 10 November declaration against the people will remain in the minds of this generation and enter the archives of big news providers around the world, whatever measures the ruling party may take to change the fact of its aggression against democracy, on this red-letter day.
Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin’s scathing and obnoxious statements when interviewed by Al Jazeera only proves that the BN regime has sunk into irrational paranoia with a general election looming on the horizon.
The administration increasingly fails to convince the electorate that it can guarantee clean and fair elections. It is losing credibility with every protest it attempts to squelch since the fuel price hike protest, which was blacked out in all the mainstream media last year.
Protests are becoming increasingly common and will continue as long as the government persists in turning a deaf ear to the electorates’ problems. Virtually no accountability exists in all three dimensions of the democratic framework of government. Separation of powers has become obsolete and the merging of the executive with the legislature and the judiciary creates a political structure very akin to autocracy.
Deputy premier Najib Razak’s impassioned and stern speech in which he said that protesting publicly in the streets is not the Malaysian way appears as a veiled threat to the people, who have lost hope in ‘going through the proper channels’. Appeals and memoranda presented to this government’s ministers and high-ranking civil servants have repeatedly ended up gathering dust in official filing cabinets and library archives.
The arrests of several of Bersih’s pro-democracy protesters is vivid confirmation of the ruling party’s anti-democratic stance and it is becoming increasingly difficult to hide this from the world.
The release of a couple of hundred detained protesters after their statements had been allegedly taken suggests that the government freed them only because it was wary of the global press, who had homed in on the incident and broadcasted it worldwide.
A source said police had set up road blocks far and wide on 10 Nov in states as far south as Johor to stop and turn back anyone dressed in yellow! The police had issued warnings in their attempt to discourage people within and outside Kuala Lumpur from joining the protest at least a week before the event took place. The police deemed this to be an illegal assembly and warned that those participating in it would be penalised.
Obviously, this did not wash with either the protesters or the public who were all too familiar with the authority’s tactics. The charge of illegal assembly against the exercise of one’s human right to freedom of expression and freedom to hold a political opinion is a nauseatingly familiar refrain from the lips of the powers-that-be. The public turned up in their thousands to lend support to Bersih.
The ferocity of the FRU and Rela may have dispersed some of the protesters – for the moment. Yet, the atmosphere still feels electric, as opposition parties vow not to give up until ballots are cast. This is believable, as the opposition has always been the under-dog of Malaysian politics.
The clampdown on bloggers is still simmering in our memory; it contradicts the government’s claim that it upholds the right to free expression. It is an attempt to inculcate the habit of self-censorship among bloggers so that they conform with the façade of exercising their right to free expression. It is just one step before the crude measure of shutting down internet communications altogether – as was done by the Burmese regime so recently.
Over the past three years, Malaysians have seen a build up of militarisation in the country. The first excuse was the presence of undocumented and alleged ‘illegal migrants’ whose numbers were speedily rising apparently uncontrolled.
They were the ideal excuse to activate and beef up Rela (the volunteer corps) in an ad hoc manner. This amateur, undisciplined force, in time, became an embarrassment to the Home Affairs Ministry and the Immigration authorities, as it had no real basis for its existence and was uncontrolled by proper legislation. Rela took to behaving abusively, criminally and brutally towards migrants, refugees and ultimately towards Malaysian citizens as well.
There was a small backlash from citizens who complained and instituted legal action for violations of their privacy, criminal damage to property and commission of robbery during alleged searches for undocumented migrant workers in private homes and factory premises. The media couldn’t help giving Rela bad press as it was dutybound to report the incidents.
Despite this, the Deputy premier, Najib Razak, who is Minister of Defence neglected to intervene or condemn the behaviour of Rela or of the Ministry of Home Affairs in allowing such hoodlums on the loose. He seems to have endorsed the empowerment of Rela by allowing it to grow in number, silently approving their request to carry firearms and granting incentives to Rela members. The Home Affairs Ministry has also applied to the government to upgrade Rela to a department.
It looks as though Malaysia has a shortage of proper armed security forces and needs yet another internal army, apart from the reserve units of the armed forces and sub-divisions of the police force. It seems the only panacea the government can come up with to resolve the persistent problem of lack of democracy. The government has chosen to be undemocratic in answer to the demand for democracy and justice.
On the Mandalay Road?
In view of this progressively worrying trend towards militarisation and the growing intolerance for the exercise of human and democratic rights, the question whether Malaysia is on the way to becoming “another Myanmar” in Asean is inevitable.
Moreover, Malaysia has very recently exhibited a ‘friendliness’ towards the military junta by making trade and investment deals with that government, even after the brutal regime’s crackdown on Buddhist monks and civilians protesting against the increasing economic hardship in their country. UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s visit seems to have sparked a trace of defiance in the Malaysian government’s attitude, despite Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar’s barely convincing nods to the UN envoy’s statement that Asean had failed to nudge Burma towards democracy.
Zainuddin Maidin’s denial that Malaysia was behaving like Burma wears thin and is certainly unconvincing.
Currently, it is a waiting game for the Malaysian electorate, civil society groups and opposition parties to see how the Barisan Nasional responds to the clamour for free and fair elections and democratic rights.
Will this be a turning point for Malaysia, or are we going down the Mandalay Road?
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