On July 9, up to 50,000 people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur in a mass rally called by the Bersih 2.0 (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) movement. The government had declared the rally to be an illegal gathering, and blockaded all roads leading into Kuala Lumpur.
In the two weeks leading up to July 9, over 100 activists were arrested. Bersih’s offices were raided, and anyone wearing a yellow T-shirt was considered fair game by the police.
On the day itself, 1600 people were arrested, including key Opposition figures such as Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevesan and Maria Chin Abdullah, two members of the Bersih’s Steering Committee. The police went all out to prevent a memorandum on electoral reforms being delivered to the king.
Baton charges and water cannons were used to disperse the protest. Large amounts of tear gas were fired, including into the Tung Shin Maternity Hospital compound, affecting many protesters who had sought refuge there, and also patients.
Globally, protests were held in 38 cities including 750 in Melbourne and 300 in Sydney.
Since 9 July, the Malaysian government has attempted to portray the Bersih movement opposed to a democratically elected government.
Prime Minister Najib Razak asserted that the rally was about “trying to seize power from a government that was put in place by the people”, adding that “we have never cheated in an election”. But fewer and fewer people are listening to the old lies.
Malaysia’s national elections are due in 2013, but many commentators predict that they will be called at least a year early.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition headed by UMNO are spooked by recent election results in the region—the unprecedented strong showing by the Singaporean opposition earlier this year, and the Red Shirt-linked victory in Thailand.
Even more crucially, they fear a scenario like Tunisia or Egypt where Malaysia’s masses rise up against decades of what has essentially been one-party rule.
Malaysia’s rulers maintain institutionalised racial divisions, treating the country’s significant Chinese and Indian minorities as second-class citizens. Higher education and public service jobs are
more difficult for minorities to access, while many of the nation’s most lucrative assets, like the Petronas oil company, are overwhelmingly Malay.
Free the “EO6”
UNMO is using draconian legislation, the Emergency (Public Order & Prevention of Crime) Ordinance (EO) to detain without trial six leading Malaysian Socialist Party (PSM) members.
Under the EO, if they are detained for 60 days (ie. until the end of August), the Home Affairs Minister (the very minister who signed the refugee swap agreement with Australia) can issue either a further detention, or a restriction order for two years.
Originally part of a group of 31 PSM activists arrested on 25 June, the EO6 are in separate jails, locked up in 2×2.5 metre cells since 2 July, forced to sleep on the floor with the lights on, and regularly interrogated.
They were denied family visits for 15 days and now there are fears that they have been tortured. Among the “EO6” is Dr Kumar, an elected Federal MP.
A vigorous campaign to free the EO6 has held forums across Malaysia, and vigils outside the Royal Malaysian Police HQ in Bukit Aman. A petition can be signed on http://bersih.org.
Despite this repression of democracy activists, the Australian government has no qualms striking a deal with the Malaysian government to deport 800 asylum seekers there (see p28).
Yet, the people leading the fight for democratic change in Malaysia are also those that defend the rights of refugees and asylum seekers.
On Monday 25 July, around 50 pro-democracy activists protested outside the refugee swap deal “signing ceremony” in central Kuala Lumpur. Among them was Tian Chua, federal MP from Anwar Ibrahim’s Justice Party who arrested on 9 July at KL Sentral station.
He told Solidarity, “If Malaysian citizens including MPs who dissent from the government are not safe from arbitrary detention, what hope do returned asylum seekers have?”
By Mark Goudkamp