At the end of the day on 9 July nobody entered the heavily sealed Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. The protesters were way below the 300,000 estimate, only a handful wore yellow color T-shirts and no extraordinary speeches were made by the opposition leaders. However, a loud and clear message was delivered by the opposition. It wants reforms in the electoral laws that are heavily inclined to favor the ruling party. And the government cannot ignore it for very long.
The 9 July rally by Bersih (meaning Clean in Bahasa Malay) in the history of Malaysia will definitely go down as a landmark event when thousands of civilians defied elaborate shut down measures put together by the government and marched through the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Bersih or the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections is a conglomeration of 60 Malaysian opposition political parties and NGOs with the stated aim of reforming the electoral process in Malaysia.
Vilification of the opposition remains rather common to the ruling regimes all over the world that have faced revolutions in the recent past and the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was not expected to behave differently. He played down the “illegal rally.” He added that far smaller number of people attended Bersih’s rally compared to the one organized in support of the government, incidentally on the same day. No figures are available to compare the Bersih Rally with the one that was organized to celebrate the National Cooperatives Day 2011. But while Bersih supporters had been subjected to enormous restrictions on the day of the rally and days prior to that, the pro-government celebration was a state-sponsored event.
Raids had been carried out to round up opposition members two weeks before the 9 July rally. The capital city, a thriving city of 1.6 million people and thousands of tourists, had been converted into a no-go zone for the Bersih supporters from outside. On the evening of 8 July police scanned through the hotels of Kuala Lumpur to pick up Bersih supporters who had already landed up to defy the ban on vehicles entering the city on 9 July. Barricades and blockades were put up all along the roads leading to the city square.
Close to 1,000 people were arrested on the rally day. Police choppers manned the sky, tear gas canisters were fired, water canons and batons were used to disperse the people. Many of the Bersih supporters had to shed their trademark yellow T- Shirt in order to evade being arrested by the police. Even the workers at the city’s Shell gas stations, normally seen in their yellow uniforms, were in non-yellow colors. But in the end, thousands did march on Kuala Lumpur’s streets in support of the demands put forward by Bersih.
Bersih certainly succeeded in achieving its core objectives. It created awareness among people about its intentions and demands and made people rally around it. Opposition parties all over the world have demonstrated remarkable ability to use the advantages offered by the web. Bersih too did that to a significant success. Its twitter account @Bersih had a little over 11000 followers, which is quite small compared to the hype it has been able to generate across the country. But it was one of the most dynamic accounts of the day. To be able to keep up with the traffic of Tweets received, it had to set up two more additional accounts.
The Bersih supporters made optimum use of the Internet to make the elaborate restrictive measures of the government meaningless. Through out the day, many of the rally participants used Twitter not just to provide on spot narrative of the incidents they were witnessing, but also informing fellow Bersih supporters useful snippets on road blockades, police presence and potential safe routes to evade arrest.
When the news media sites were rather slow and guarded in their reportage, Twitter became almost the sole source of information to monitor the progress of the rally. It was the first to report firing of the tear gas canisters, the use of water canons and injuries to people. As I wrote this page, almost two hours after the rally dispersed,
Bersih was generating almost 50 Tweets per minute, detailing individual experiences and pledging support to the initiative by the opposition. A few did rue the inconvenience the rally caused them.
Indeed, alternative mediums have been instrumental in channeling the voice of the opposition to its citizens. The country, which is not known for its huge rallies and anti-government protests and where the opposition parties have little access to the state controlled media, is gradually warming up to the future possibilities of giving a voice to its needs. The government can ignore these at its own peril.
“What next” is a critical question. A statement put up by the Bersih at the end of the day said, “Today’s gathering is not the end, it is but one more step in the long walk for clean and fair elections in Malaysia. The campaign continues, to work for electoral reform, the release of all detainees, and an end to harassment by the authorities. The struggle continues in the courts of law, the corridors of power, and the hearts of all the rakyat (people).”
Much of the future would now depend upon the response of the government. If Prime Minister Najib Razak chooses the road to go down fighting, indeed he will.
(Dr. Bibhu Prasad Routray, a former Deputy Director in India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) is an independent analyst based in Singapore. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BibhuRoutray)