Two Malaysian minors were among 24 people charged in a Kuala Lumpur court on 4 July 2011 for their involvement in a planned weekend rally calling for free and fair elections.

The children were among democracy activists who were jointly charged under the Societies Act in connection with the BERSIH 2.0 rally scheduled for this Saturday, 9 July, in Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur.

The court action is the latest in a widening government crackdown on the rally organisers, who have also received unsourced death threats and suffered harassment and intimidation by Malaysian police and government authorities.

Hundreds of thousands of Malaysians are nevertheless readying to rally this Saturday, despite the government banning all BERSIH 2.0 rallies and declaring the organising NGO group, BERSIH 2.0, illegal.

Worldwide, Malaysians and their supporters will take to the streets of capital cities on the same day, supporting the call for electoral reform amid mass arrests in Malaysia and in defiance of the ‘ban’ and ‘illegal organisation’ edicts.

Global solidarity walks and demonstrations will be led by Malaysians residing abroad in London, Paris, Geneva, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Tokyo, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Auckland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington next Saturday.

More than 100 activists have been arrested or questioned by police in Malaysia this past week, for their roles in helping to organise Saturday’s KL rally.

In a late development on July 2, six officers of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM – Socialist Party of Malaysia), who had been released after their June 25 detentions in the island state of Penang for supporting the rally, were re-arrested under the Emergency Ordinance (EO).

The activists were reportedly charged with “inciting national unrest” and “waging war against the king” – the latter a charge that is tantamount to treason and punishable by death.

By late evening on July 3, more arrests were being conducted in Malaysia, and Sungei Siput Opposition MP Dr Michael Jeyakumar and the other 5 PSM activists were taken to police headquarters in Bukit Aman, KL.

The EO allows for indefinite detention without trial and was described by a well placed official in Malaysian politics as “a cousin of the Internal Security Act”, which also allows the government to detain citizens without the need to present them in court.

Referring to the ongoing arrests and statements from Malaysia’s highest offices, the source said: “This is now a no-holds-barred situation.”

Donna Guest, Deputy Asia-Pacific Director at Amnesty International, said: “The Malaysian authorities are muzzling calls for electoral reform by throwing peaceful protesters in jail.

“We have not seen such a crackdown on political activists across Malaysia in many years.

“Malaysia is undermining its claim to be a moderate democracy through this campaign of repression.”

Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on July 1 outlawed BERSIH 2.0 in the wake of the government imposing a ban on the planned KL rally.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Najib Abdul Razak, the following day launched an extraordinary personal attack on BERSIH 2.0 chairman, Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, a former president of Malaysia’s Bar Council.

Internet news portal Malaysiakini reported the PM saying, “Ambiga should not think herself so strong. We will not budge at all in fighting for the truth.”

Speaking at a gathering of UMNO followers in the north-east Kelantan state of Pasir Putih, Najib reportedly said: “We will keep our claws.”

Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin branded the move to push for free elections a ploy to bring down the government, despite public declarations by rally organisers that electoral reform is the sole objective.

It has always been thus in Malaysia, where UMNO and its coalition partners push the line that any move to destabilise the government, as corrupt and decrepit as many know it to be, is a threat to national security – and any threat to national security is quickly removed by invocation of the infamous ISA (Internal Security Act), and now the EO.

Malaysian police also banned separate anti-BERSIH 2.0 rallies by ultra-right Malay group Perkasa and the youth wing of UMNO, the dominant party in Malaysia’s ruling coalition – trumpeting their stand against fair and free elections, both groups had called for processions on the same day and venue as the BERSIH 2.0 event (BERSIH is the Malay word for ‘clean’).

However, at time of publication, neither Perkasa nor UMNO Youth had been declared illegal by police, nor were any arrests made of members who had organised the launch of their respective anti-BERSIH 2.0 rallies.

NGO participants and observers conclude the anti-BERSIH rallies were calculated to raise tensions in an already inflamed situation and thereby deliver to Malaysian police the justification to ban all rallies and move to detain organisers as well as Opposition leaders – reminiscing of Operasi Lalang in 1987, when Mahathir under threat from within UMNO, in the pretext of national security, arrested civil society and opposition leaders to protect his position in UMNO.

BERSIH’s Datuk Ambiga, however, is unmoved, and said the electoral reform movement has captured the people’s “hearts and minds”.

“BERSIH now means more than just a group of organisations to Malaysians. Bersih is now a concept that has captured the hearts and minds of the rakyat.

“BERSIH is now the rakyat, therefore whatever anybody tries to do to BERSIH will not make any difference to how people feel about what it stands for,” the BERSIH 2.0 chairman told The Malaysian Insider.

The first BERSIH rally in 2007 saw an estimated 50,000 people take to the streets in the capital city before they were dispersed by riot police armed with water cannons and tear gas.

Parties within the Opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, have called on their members to support the rally, and PAS has asked its million members to turn up on July 9.

BERSIH 2.0 expects a higher turnout this year, compared to 2007, due to more widespread publicity, courtesy of social media.

The high expectations come despite an open program of media manipulation to vilify the rally and its organisers. Malaysian human rights group Suaram said the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) recently invited 22 electronic media and telecommunications operators to attend a one-day seminar , whose aim, reportedly, was to “discuss compliance with licensing criteria and other relevant provisions”.

Attendees were advised by the MCMC to refrain from referring to the rally as a “BERSIH rally” but as an “illegal gathering” in their media coverage and to avoid using footage of police brutality and to focus instead on the inconveniences of the rally, from traffic jams to loss of business.

Whether or not the 9 July KL rally is thwarted by mass detentions and other insidious means, the message is abundantly clear – the Malaysian government under Najib Razak does not want free and fair elections.

This report contains information from recent articles in The Malaysian Insider and Malaysiakini. The author also gratefully acknowledges the use of material from Malaysian human rights group Suaram and Bersih 2.0 Global. It was written to extend global awareness of how freedom of speech and freedom of association in Malaysia are systemically suppressed by detention without trial, a partisan police force and public threats to individuals and property, while the country itself is often touted by neighbours and trading partners as a seat of moderation and democracy in an otherwise restive region.