Malaysia

‘Foolish’ if Najib bans Bersih 3.0, say analysts

By Clara Chooi
April 07, 2012

KUALA LUMPUR, April 7 — Political analysts believe the authorities will not come down hard on Bersih 3.0 protesters like they did last year, saying it would be an “unbelievably foolish” strategy by Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

They agreed that any show of muscle to stop the April 28 protest could spell political suicide for Najib and his team, pointing out that the 13th general election was too close for the prime minister to risk bleeding more support.

File photo of police firing tear gas on Bersih participants at the rally on July 9, 2011. — Picture by Choo Choy MayFile photo of police firing tear gas on Bersih participants at the rally on July 9, 2011. — Picture by Choo Choy May“If they did again what they did for the first two [Bersih] rallies, it would be unbelievably foolish... do you think they would be so naïve?

“To be given a third chance to show you are a government that respects democratic values and to turn it down... it would be obtuse even beyond the standards of Barisan Nasional (BN),” University Malaya law professor Dr Azmi Sharom said.

Furthermore, the academic added, Bersih 3.0, scheduled for April 28 at Dataran Merdeka, was merely a “sit-in” event and not a march on the streets.

“It is a sit-in, which has a rather peaceful connotation. It would definitely affect the government’s image and the general election if they come down hard on it.

“At the very least, it would just reinforce the people’s conviction against them,” he said.

Azmi said it was necessary for Bersih to push for a third rally as the group would lose its legitimacy and respect from its supporters if it did nothing.Azmi said it was necessary for Bersih to push for a third rally as the group would lose its legitimacy and respect from its supporters if it did nothing.During Bersih’s first two rallies — in 2007 and last year — the government deployed riot police teams who sprayed water cannons and tear gas on protesters who had gathered in the streets of the capital to call for free and fair elections.

The 2007 rally, which resulted in chaos, has been widely credited for BN’s significant electoral losses in Election 2008.

Last year, the authorities tried to ward off the rally by arresting Bersih supporters even before the July 9 event. They also declared that those seen sporting the group’s signature yellow colour would be hauled in.

On the day of the event, the city was placed on lockdown. Major roads leading into the capital from outstation locations and within the Klang Valley were blocked. Train services were temporarily halted. Those seen wearing yellow were carted away without question.

“But I think the government will certainly look at the consequences of their actions from last year’s rally and not use the same tactics.

“I think some big lessons were learned from there,” Merdeka Centre chief Ibrahim Suffian told The Malaysian Insider.

After July 9, Najib found his government repeatedly demonised in the international media for allegedly using excessive force on peaceful protesters.

Analysts also believe that the country’s civil society movement had blossomed considerably because of Bersih 2.0. The politically apathetic began to sit up and take notice while the city-based middle- to upper-class Malaysian started to find an interest in Bersih’s cause, many vowing to participate in the next such rally.

In an apparent move to ward off further damage, the government mooted the Peaceful Assembly Act (PA2011) late last year to regulate public gatherings and formed a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) specifically tasked to look into Bersih’s demand for electoral reform.

“It was that very reason that the PA2011 was drafted. And following that, the way the government handled the other rallies — (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim’s (Sodomy II) acquittal, the Himpunan Hijau protest (against Lynas Corporation) in Kuantan — it seems to be a more intelligent way of handling things,” Ibrahim said.

“They (government) have become more sophisticated, they are giving room for gatherings to take place, and they are clearly avoiding or preventing themselves from giving reasons to the opposition and civil society to find fault with them.”

This method, he added, would help reduce the political impact of gatherings like Bersih 3.0.

“So if Bersih 3.0 results in more police action, violence... this certainly feeds the people’s anger and energises them further,” said Ibrahim.

Ibrahim felt the government would not use the same tactics. — File picIbrahim felt the government would not use the same tactics. — File picBersih 3.0 was announced on Wednesday, a day after the Dewan Rakyat approved the PSC’s final 22-point report on electoral reforms, which the election watchdog group said was inadequate.

To Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Associate Professor Dr Mohammad Agus Yusoff, however, the election watchdog may be playing the wrong card with Bersih 3.0.

He suggested that holding a third rally could be viewed as an “overkill” and result in a backlash even for the opposition and Bersih if the government decides to block the event from occurring.

“Yes, a major, major backlash for BN but for the other side too. The commotion, chaos, arrests... there are those who sympathise with Bersih but there are also those who do not.

“Road users, traders, they will not be happy,” he said.

Instead, Agus suggested that all warring parties return to the drawing board to reach a consensus on how to avoid such a chaotic clash on the streets.

At least two key electoral reforms, he said, must be implemented to resolve the stand-off for now — the use of indelible ink and reforms to the postal voting system.

“The other issues, like the fear of double voting... that can be resolved with the indelible ink,” he pointed out.

“The other matters like cleaning the electoral roll from discrepancies can be ironed out later. But for now, these two things are important and can be done immediately,” he said.

But Azmi disagreed, saying it was necessary for Bersih to push for a third rally as the group would lose its legitimacy and respect from its supporters if it does nothing.

“They have to make a stand. Just because the government makes a show of certain changes, but the key changes like how there are voters who should not be in the electoral roll... if they do not clean that up and Bersih accepts what the PSC put forward, then it would destroy their credibility... So I don’t think they have a choice,” he said.