The ‘grimy’ challenges confronting Bersih

OCTOBER 28 ― In what seems to be its latest attempt at putting obstacles on the road to the planned Bersih 5 rally on November 19, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, the federal government is reportedly mulling over the possibility of blacklisting law firms linked to Bersih 2.0 from providing legal services to the government or government-linked companies (GLCs).

Not only that, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan said the government is also looking at the prospect of taking similar action against lawyers found to be involved in the Bersih movement.

This is apart from him implying, on another occasion, that Bersih 2.0 is planning to topple the sitting BN government through illegal means, which stretches the imagination a wee bit far as the movement has always championed the strengthening of democracy in the country.

Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed chipped in to say that the activities of the red-shirted mob would stop if Bersih 2.0 ceases its planned programmes and November 19 rally. He advised Bersih to stop its activities as he claimed that the movement has not gained traction with the public.

There are at least three implications of Nur Jazlan’s supposed logic. One, it looks like Bersih 2.0, an advocate of peaceful protest, has ironically become the “inspiration” for the hooliganism of the red-shirted crowd, and therefore any violent breakout will necessarily be blamed on the former.

Two, the Home Ministry, which is armed to the teeth in laws to maintain social order etc, appears helpless in reining in this red-shirted group that has reportedly vowed to create trouble for Bersih 2.0 and its supporters.

The cumulative effect of all this is that over time Bersih can be conveniently demonised as a movement that is perceived to be closely associated with violence, social chaos or trouble ― something that, consequently, the general public should stay away from.

Notice how at times the two opposing groups have been roundly and equally blamed for the scuffles that erupted from the resulting face-off as if Bersih is the one that deliberately looks for trouble. For example, Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor warned that Malaysia would experience a riot if groups like Bersih 2.0 and the red-shirted mob “keep on locking horns.” The red-shirted are the ones who are inclined to intimidate and harass, and therefore they need to be separated physically from the Bersih crowd.

The red-shirted mob leader lodged a police report early this month, claiming that the Bersih movement is linked to the notorious Islamic State! You can’t get any more dangerous and abominable than that. The same leader also declared provocatively, after being released from brief police detention, an all-out “war” on the Bersih 5 rally.

And the Home Ministry reported recently that some “175 police reports have been made against both Bersih 2.0 and Red Shirt movement as of September” ― thereby making both parties hitherto culpable. 

Three, it is not up to the government or any other group to decide whether Bersih should continue with its mission to rally or not if there’s really not much support from the general public. It is for Bersih alone to make that final decision.

Anyway, if it is indeed true ― as suggested by Nur Jazlan ― that Bersih doesn’t get traction with the general public, then these two ministers in particular and the federal government in general don’t have to behave in a jittery and desperate manner as we get closer to the appointed November rally. As they say, just stay calm, and smell the caffeine.

The above cases are not isolated at all. Ever since its launch on November 23, 2006, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or popularly known by its Malay moniker “Bersih” (meaning “clean”), has encountered challenges of various shapes and sizes in its effort to press for cleaner elections and also to raise consciousness in a peaceful way about its objectives among ordinary Malaysians.

Indeed, this movement of primarily civil society organisations ― whose present demands are clean elections; clean government; protect parliamentary democracy; right to dissent; and empower Sabah and Sarawak ― has had to face opposition from certain quarters that could only be interpreted as them rejecting its noble demands befitting of a democracy.

Many things, ranging from the dangerously serious to the densely hilarious, have been said and done by various social and state actors ever since the date of Bersih 5 rally was announced on September 14, 2016. Apart from the above instances, death threats have also been issued by hitherto unidentified detractors to Bersih 2.0 chairman Maria Chin Abdullah, her children, former Bersih co-chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan and Bersih secretariat manager Mandeep Singh in an apparent attempt to derail the rally plan.

Levity emerges as the drama unfolds. The leader of the red-shirted mob even accused Bersih of attacking its own supporters and media personnel in Sabak Bernam, Selangor in an ostensible attempt to deflect criticism about his own group. It doesn’t take a graduate from Gordon University to realise that something is amiss with the leader’s version of the incident.

It’s also as believable as asserting that Maria Chin Abdullah is on the payroll of US’s Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with the mission to champion the cause of feminism in Malaysia.

And if the recent past is noteworthy, it is useful to remember that the mere wearing of Bersih’s yellow T-shirts was subjected to a government ban under the notorious Printing Presses and Publications Act in an apparent effort to disrupt a sense of solidarity among Bersih supporters that was built around this symbolic colour.

Additionally, as the date of rally came much closer, more hurdles were set up to further frustrate the Bersih organisers. For example, civil servants and university students ― who as citizens should have the right to assemble and express their views ― were barred from participating in Bersih rallies.

It’s quite likely that this time around the same action would be taken, particularly against students. The show-cause letters issued recently to those Universiti Malaya students who led the #TangkapMO1 for having supposedly besmirched their university would indicate that the ban on Bersih participation is likely to be imposed on them.

And at the eleventh hour, as in the past, certain roads and highways leading to the final meeting point of the Bersih 5 rally in Kuala Lumpur might be blocked.

In a nutshell, the above are instances of how the powers-that-be responded so far, and would probably respond in the near future, to the strenuous endeavour of the Bersih movement to impress upon the general public the political importance of their open agenda, i.e. to champion for clean and fair elections, clean government and protect parliamentary democracy, among others.

The attempt by certain quarters to paint Bersih as a movement that indulges in, or is associated with, violence is mischievously dangerous.

A further smudge on our democracy would indeed occur if and when the movement is deprived of its democratic right to assemble and publicly express its opinions in a peaceful manner.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.