Bersih 3.0: Malaysians mobilize for clean elections 1 Favorite 



Apr 30 2012


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Following the huge turnout of Bersih 2.0 in 2011, Bersih 3.0
returned on April 28 with renewed vigour and determination to make the
voices of Malaysians heard. Meaning ‘clean’ in Malay, Bersih calls for
clean and fair elections in a country fed up with problems of electoral
fraud, phantom voters, vote-buying and a lack of independent public
institutions. Following recent amendments to the Election Offenses Bill
that have led to the removal of election monitors,
Bersih 3.0 was seen as an opportunity to make the unhappiness of
Malaysians known to their government and the international community.
While last year’s event was mainly focused in the capital city of
Kuala Lumpur, Bersih 3.0 saw gatherings in 11 Malaysian cities, as well
as solidarity events from around the world. Bersih 3.0 Singapore,
though, came with a twist: although there was a solidarity event for
Malaysians living and working in Singapore, it was held in Johor Bahru,
Malaysia. Effectively, the event became Bersih 3.0 for Malaysians in
Singapore… in Malaysia.
In Singapore, most public assemblies require permits from the police. Cause-related activities involving foreigners are rarely — if ever — allowed. Last year’s gathering of Malaysians at Hong Lim Park resulted in an organizer being called in for questioning by the police, and so it was no surprise when the permit for a gathering this year was rejected.
Bersih 3.0 Singapore therefore organized for Malaysians in Singapore
(referred to as MiS) to meet up and travel across the Causeway to Johor
Bahru, the closest Malaysian city. Organizers said that over 150 people
made the trip.
Once in Johor Bahru, they assembled at Waterfront City for a photo
session with Singapore’s skyline in the background — the closest they
could get to Singapore without being arrested. The group also sang their
national anthem, “Negaraku,” before heading towards Dataran Bandaraya
to join their fellow Malaysians for Bersih 3.0 in Johor Bahru.
“Turning up today … is such a small thing to do, but it means
something,” Johanna Lau, a student at the National University of
Singapore, who is originally from Penang, told me as she followed the
long line of yellow-clad protesters. Cars zipped by as we trudged along
the road under the merciless sun. Many honked their horns, shouted their
encouragement through open windows and gave a thumbs-up in support.
With the main part of Dataran Bandaraya occupied by a rock concert
and the field taken up by a football match, Bersih 3.0 was relegated to a
corner of the square right under the clock tower. Some suspected that
both the match and the concert had been hastily organized to prevent
protesters from being able to take over the whole space, but Bersih
organizers and volunteers made sure that no one intruded upon the other
Tan Tack Poh, a volunteer wearing a black T-shirt with “SECURITY”
printed on the front, explained his role to me. “I’m here to make sure
that no one messes with anybody,” he said. “We watch out for people. We
have to be prepared in case there are thugs or troublemakers trying to
stir things up.”
In addition to Bersih’s volunteers, local police also made their
presence felt in the square but made no move to stop or obstruct any of
the proceedings. During their speeches, leaders indicated that the rally
had no intention of breaching the newly-enforced Peaceful Assembly Act,
which prohibits “assemblies in motion.”
In keeping with Bersih 3.0’s call of “Duduk Bantah,” or sit-in protest,
people sat on the grass, shielding themselves with multi-colored
Over the course of the afternoon, the space was flooded by a sea of
yellow. Flecks of green — representative of protesters against
Australian rare earth plant Lynas —
were seen amongst the crowd, and welcomed. “We want a clean Malaysia.
Clean elections and clean environment,” said a protester who noticed me
reading his “Stop Lynas!” sign.
“All we want is free and fair elections. The government media doesn’t
tell us the full story, but alternative media spells out cases of
fraudulent activity during voting. The government just gives us
excuses,” said volunteer Munikrishan s/o Ponnan. “The people are serious
about reform. We don’t want words, we want action.” His colleague
Murugan s/o A. Kaliappan agreed: “This is for the good of our country.
We’re here for our children’s future.”
At the designated end-time of 4 p.m., everyone got to their feet to
sing the national anthem once more, then dispersed, thanking the
volunteers and policemen as they left the square.
It was estimated that 4,000 people had turned up at Dataran Bandaraya
in peaceful protest, a far cry from how things eventually unfolded in
the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, where the main Bersih protest saw at
least 25,000 people swarming the streets.
After the sit-in was declared a success and the crowds were asked by
Bersih co-chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan to disperse, a group of
protesters broke through the barricades, preventing people from entering
Kuala Lumpur’s Dataran Merdeka. Police retaliated by using water
cannons and tear gas on everyone, and mayhem erupted in the capital. A
police car crashed into the side of a building after being attacked by
protesters, hitting two people. Hundreds were arrested and many
journalists were manhandled, their cameras smashed and memory cards
The violent way in which Bersih 3.0 in Kuala Lumpur eventually ended led Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to characterize the protest as an attempt by opposition parties to make the government look bad in the international community.
Yet, in most other parts of Malaysia and around the world, Bersih 3.0
was like what I observed in Johor Bahru: a peaceful gathering of
Malaysians seeking to change systems they deem corrupt.

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