Muzzled in Malaysia

Those who have been following the developments on the Lokpal Bill and the debates in the camps of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev believe that these are intrinsic to the traditions of political participation, which most Indians have taken almost for granted.
However, it is a privilege not enjoyed by many countries even in our own extended neighbourhood.

In a globally surcharged environment where the Internet and communications network have led to information moving at super speeds, the waves created by activism are likely to spread. The resonance of civil society activism is like a transnational infection that tends to spread beyond the borders of nation states and has a global impact on the governments that face it.
One of the interesting cases that needs focus is Campaign Bersih, which is one of the hot topics of debate these days in Malaysia. Campaign Bersih is an attempt by civil society groups to spread awareness and garner support for implementing important reforms of a very biased and lopsided electoral system. Bersih in Malay means “clean” or “to clean”. The political fallout of the bersih movement for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Barisan National (BN) is critical. The UMNO has been the leading political party in Malaysia since its independence in 1957 and has ensured that there is no Opposition within the country.
On July 9, 2011 activist groups will rally for a cleaner election in Malaysia. More than 60 civil society groups have come together calling themselves the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, under whose banner they will organise a rally or a “walk for democracy”. In a state where the gathering of people for protest is considered sedition, this walk for democracy is a rare show. This demonstration is being called Bersih 2.0 because it is the second part of a protest rally calling for a cleanup of the electoral system that is both racially and religiously biased in favour of the dominant ethnic Malay community. Bersih 2.0 chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan says the demonstration aims to create awareness among people about the lacunas in the electoral system in Malaysia. However, even if people are protesting quietly and democratically, in the Malay context it is almost synonymous with sedition and considered a threat to national security.
Prior to this, the campaign for clean and free elections took place in November 2007 in which the protesters wore yellow T-shirt similar to the Thai protesters who were against the Thaksin government. This campaign was followed closely by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) movement, where the ethnic Indian community protested outside the British High Commission and demanded indemnity from the queen for being taken by the colonial government as indentured labourers and being evicted from their homeland. The government responded to these two protests in a very high-handed and ruthless manner, which, in fact, dented their results in the 2008 election. In five states, Opposition parties made inroads into the ruling base, toppling the UMNO and posing the BN a critical political challenge.
Another aspect that needs to be considered in Malaysia is the role of the media. In a country where the media, too, remains at loggerheads over the rights of freedom with the government, there is very little support for civil society movements. The limited freedom given to the media is evident from the incident in 1987 when the government under Mahatir Mohamad imposed the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) on four newspaper houses, leading to a situation where the freedom of press was found to be severely curtailed.
Keeping the crackdown on the media in mind, recent attacks and blocking of two Web portals are clear indications of the degree of political repression in Malaysia. The office of Sarawak Report, a Web portal that attacks illegal mining and political and corporate nexus in timber trade, was vandalised and the portal was blocked by government-run agencies. Another website that has always opposed a lot of government stands was the Malaysiakini. It too has been blocked because it was anti-UMNO and raised issues of corruption and abuse of political power.
Another news website that came under government crackdown was Malaysia Today. In fact, the editor of the website had even considered talks with Hindraf, which had protested in 2007, and there were suggestions that Hindraf needed to project its identity more along the lines that are inclusive of the ethnic communities rather than narrowing itself to represent only the Indian minorities. It believed that poverty did not distinguish between race and ethnicity and that the political culture in Malaysia had led to a deepening of the economic and political disparity in the society.
Unfortunately, Bersih 2.0 is already seeing signs of racial discord by way of pronouncements made by alternate groups. Both the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) — the leading Opposition party — and Perkasa have called for alternate rallies. The call given by Perkasa to counter the Bersih movement has been strident in its anti-Chinese stand, which has led to some misgivings. Perkasa, a Right-wing group, is very rigid in its views on the rights of the indigenous Malay community vis-a-vis the other two dominant ethnic communities, the Chinese and the Indians. For almost 50 years Malaysia has a policy of protection for the ethnic Malay community called the Bumiputera or “the sons of the soil’’, but today the policy is being increasingly questioned because it leaves the other ethnic communities at a disadvantage.
The UMNO, in an attempt to push its own agendas, has been at loggerheads with the Opposition. In March, in a vitriolic campaign against PAS leader Anwar Ibrahim, videos alleging the involvement of Mr Ibrahim with a sex worker were doing the rounds. In a country that vows to follow ethical lines and Islamic values strongly, this incident drove home the point that in politics there is little room for values of any kind. Also, in a bid to distance itself from Perkasa, the UMNO is organising a counter-rally of its youth wing, which will seek to drown out the resonance of Bersih 2.0. With its own political legitimacy being questioned, the UMNO is likely to take draconian measures against the forthcoming rally.
A movement that wants to ensure free and fair elections is the need of the hour and should be welcomed, rather than thwarted. But given the state control that the UMNO and the BN have had over the years, the situation is unlikely to look up. The manner in which Prime Minister Najib’s government will react to Bersih 2.0 will tell how far Malaysia and the region at large are moving in the direction of greater democratic freedoms and rights.

The author is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

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