The biggest threat – as perceived by the present administration – to Malaysia’s internal security is a demand for free and fair elections. The current administration has responded with brute force against the organisers and supporters of the walk for free and fair election. This event, organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections 2.0 (popularly known by its Malay acronym – BERSIH 2.0) is scheduled for 9th July, 2011 at 12.00 p.m. (Malaysian time)

What exactly is BERSIH 2.0 and why does the government fear it?

On 10 November 2007, The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, (BERSIH – which means clean), comprising opposition political parties and some 60 civil society organisations, held peaceful mass demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur in support of free and fair elections. Estimates of the numbers taking part vary from 50,000-100,000 – a large turnout considering that police had declared the demonstration illegal and made every effort to prevent it taking place.

The success of this demonstration, held just a year after the official launch of BERSIH, has been widely credited with contributing to the subsequent opposition success in 2008 elections. For the first time ever the opposition prevented the government obtaining a two thirds majority in parliament (important both psychologically and to ensure the constitution cannot be changed at will), and won power in its own right in five states.

After staying in the background for some time BERSIH was re-launched in September 2010 (as BERSIH 2.0), and now plans a second major rally on 9 July. BERSIH 2.0 is chaired by a respected former President of the Malaysian Bar Council and senior practising lawyer, Dato’ Ambiga Sreenavasan. Its multi-racial twelve-member steering committee includes a wide cross section of leaders from the legal fraternity, human rights groups and Islamic organisations.

62 NGOs are affiliated to BERSIH 2.0. Major opposition parties have also supported it, recognising that their chances of gaining national power depend on elections that are reasonably free and fair, but unlike the earlier BERSIH, they play no direct role.

The objectives of 9 July Walk for Free and Fair elections

Eight specific objectives have been announced, namely:

тАв Clean the electoral roll

тАв Reform the postal vote

тАв Use indelible ink

тАв Free and fair access to media

тАв Minimum 21 days campaign period

тАв Strengthen public institutions

тАв Stop corruption

тАв Stop dirty politics

The main focus of these objectives is thus on addressing immediate electoral reforms. Several independent analyses have documented the fact that hitherto the government has failed to provide basic requirements for free and fair elections.

Official reaction to proposed BERSIH 2.0 rally

Government reaction to the proposed rally has been hostile from the outset, as it was in 2007. It declared the rally illegal, claiming that BERSIH 2.0 was manipulated by the opposition and planned to overthrow the government by force and cause social chaos. It unleashed groups such as UMNO Youth and the Malay extremist Perkasa to threaten counter mass demonstrations – Perkasa leader Ibrahim Ali ominously warned non-Malays that they should ‘stock up on food’. Recently it declared BERSIH 2.0 an illegal organisation, and warned that even wearing a BERSIH 2.0 T-shirt or using ‘shoes, cars or buses’ to encourage participants were illegal.

The government has also mobilised a massive campaign against BERSIH 2.0 using the mainstream media, government institutions such as the police and Elections Commission, and Friday sermons in mosques. BERSIH 2.0 has been linked to an attempted revival of communism and the Islamic extremist Jemaah Islamiah organisation. Particularly worrying is the attempt to inject a sectarian element into the attack. UMNO-owned Utusan Malaysia claimed that the planned demonstration was being funded by 11 foreign Christian organisations. The official news agency and Prime Minister Najib have alleged that Ambiga is anti-Muslim. She has received a well-publicised death threat and her picture has been publicly burnt. More than a hundred BERSIH 2.0 supporters have already been arrested, and many more called in for police questioning.

What is the real issue?

A general election is not due until 2013, but is widely expected later this year or the first half of 2012.

The government’s actions against BERSIH 2.0 are designed to position itself for this election. It hopes that a tough line will demonstrate strength, and show the futility of support for the opposition. In particular it is aimed at shoring up support from electorally-dominant rural Malays, by linking the rally to an alleged Christian and anti-Muslim agenda, as well as communists and Muslim extremists. It is also designed to reject any attempts by independent groups to act as election watchdogs. It has long taken this position against international observers in the past, but has accorded local groups accreditation. In the recent Sarawak state elections, however, it denied official accreditation to any group, as well as preventing watchdog leaders from visiting the state.

For their part, BERSIH 2.0 and the opposition are seeking to pressure the government into recognising the right of peaceful assembly, and taking steps towards electoral reform. In the face of an ongoing erosion of democratic space and the rule of law they feel compelled to take a stand to ensure this process does not proceed by default.

New Mandala thanks Anonymous for this new perspective on the issues surrounding the BERSIH 2.0 planned rally.