Wong Choon Mei
The July 9 Bersih 2.0 rally for free and fair elections are over but the impact is only starting to show as experts near and far reassess their view of Malaysia and the Najib administration, which has come under heavy fire for mismanaging citizens demonstrations.
To some, the rally may have been Malaysia’s own first mini-Arab Spring and it was not impossible that Prime Minister Najib Razak would not clamp down on future protests with military or even police rule just like the Middle Eastern despots had done so, but to little avail.
“”Malaysia is certainly not Libya or Syria or Yemen. Najib is not a Qaddafi. But still, I was surprised to see that Najib is still saying that the Bersih movement is a veiled attempt to topple his administration through street demonstrations, like those that are now claiming Middle Eastern despots,” former US ambassador to Malaysia John Malott told Malaysia Chronicle in an interview.
“Well, if that is Bersih’s goal, then why did Najib act like an Arab Spring government? It’s only a question of degree. The Malaysian police did not use lethal force, but the mentality is the same. Suppress whoever disagrees with you. Maybe you don’t use tanks, but you use water cannon. It’s not bullets, it’s tear gas. But the authoritarian mindset is exactly the same as the leaders of the Arab Spring governments. Just because you use non-lethal force doesn’t mean it’s OK.”
Ops Lalang 2.0 is possible
In the Bersih rally, more than 1,600 people were arrested, thousands more injured and one death occured due to excessive police action against the demonstrators. In the runup to the rally, nearly 200 people were nabbed and 6 remain in remand under an oppressive law that allows the government to hold them without trial indefinitely.
Najib has tried tried to weather the storm of criticism against his leadership by firing back and giving as good as he received. He did not offer any reforms or olive branches to the people. Instead he decribed the rally as being stirred by a “small group” of malcontents led by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim, with the purpose of toppling the BN government.
“It’s not so much about electoral reform. They want to show us as though we’re like the Arab Spring governments in the Middle East,” the Malaysian PM had said.
His refusal to ‘lay down arms’ has irritated the populace and sparked concern, raising fears that instead of increasing the democratic space in Malaysia’s fast-changing society, Najib might shift further to the right. Many Malaysians believe he will use Emergency rule to cloak the country while he consolidated his grip on power with mass arrests and a purge, which will certainly not exclude rivals within his own UMNO party.
Whatever it takes to stay in power
A recently leaked US embassy cable that said UMNO would do “whatever” it takes to remain in power including subverting the institutions of state power to its own purposes, including the police and the courts.
“Malaysia has seen Operasi Lalang, it has seen the Sedition Act and ISA used liberally, and more recently it has seen denial of service attacks on the alternative media to keep people from reading what the Government doesn’t want them to know. I hope it doesn’t come to that. But I would not rule out the possibility that something like that might happen,” said Malott, the ambassador to the country from 1995 to 1998, and widely respected for his knowledge of the country and its political dynamics.
“What is the probability of it happening? I don’t know. But if it does happen, then as you said, it will come as a great shock to everyone who has been holding a very different image of Malaysia. That is why I wrote my piece. I think the American people need to wake up and understand what is happening in Malaysia today, and to express our concern.”
In the wake of the Bersih rally, Malott was asked for his assessment by a US Congressional think-tank on the Malaysian situation and he has called on US foreign policymakers to show greater support for the civi society movement in Malaysia and their struggle for the continuation of democracy and democratc practises in the country.
So far, the United Nations, the United States and foreign watchdog bodies such Amnesty International have slammed the Malaysian authorities for banning peaceful assembly. They also condemned Najib’s use of the various institutions – from government media, TV stations, police and courts – to suppress and tar the rally. – Malaysia Chronicle