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Bersih 2.0

I've been reading up about the upcoming Bersih rally on July 9, where at least tens of thousands of Malaysians may take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur, peacefully demonstrating for freer and fairer elections in my country. Bersih 2.0 is the sequel to the Bersih 2007 rally, also held in Kuala Lumpur, where any number between 10,000 and 40,000 people also gathered for freer and fairer elections. The Bersih coalition itself, which planned the event, is comprised of 62 NGOs representing the full breadth of Malaysia's political and social spectrum. Among the notable events that happened during the first Bersih rally, representatives of the Malaysian Bar Council, led by then chairlady Dato' Ambiga Sreenevasan -- who still heads the Bersih coalition today, themselves took to the streets of Putrajaya, Malaysia's capital, in solidarity with the protesters.

It's taken me about two months to figure out what to make of Bersih and the rallyers in general. There's a huge morass of information out there about what Bersih claims to be, and what it probably isn't. Even by cross-referencing different non-mainstream media sources in Malaysia, many of the views presented are filled with acrid opinionating and catty cynicism, with incessant co-opting by several political forces. Finding a clear answer was difficult.

Most important to me, and what took me this long to figure out, is that for all intents and purposes, Bersih is going to be a non-partisan event, representing the full breadth of civil society in Malaysia.

Key to that idea is that in spite of a concerted campaign against the Bersih rally by the federal government that has included illegalising the Bersih organisation, arrests of volunteers, accusations of sedition and the full power of the pro-government media, Bersih continues to offer room for dialogue with the country's administration, even if it will not halt the rally, and has at no point closed the door open for government representatives and supporters to join the rally themselves. The point is to call for freer and fairer elections in Malaysia, after all, so all Malaysians have a role in ensuring this happens.

Secondary to that is that unlike the first Bersih rally, where representatives of the Pakatan Rakyat, the coalition of the three largest opposition political parties in Malaysia, were part of the planning committee, all political parties have pulled out of administrative roles from 2011's Bersih to keep the event non-partisan. This doesn't stop different NGOs within the coalition from having their alliances, but that's not the point. Civil society represents the whole of Malaysian society, even the people we are wont to disagree with, and the list of Endorsees on Bersih's official website accurately mirrors this. Again, all Malaysian citizens are responsible for ensuring elections held in the country, for their government, are free and fair. This goes from university students to the men and women on the street, from the political fringe to the Dewan Negara, from the Cabinet to the Prime Minister -- and indeed, the King.

There are 8 demands Bersih is making by organizing this rally. I've listed a summary below, where text in brackets were my own explanations for what certain points pertained to. The fully elaborated list is available at Bersih's website here:

  1. Clean the electoral roll

  2. Reform postal ballot

  3. Use of indelible ink (to prevent voter fraud)

  4. Minimum 21-day campaign period (prior to elections)

  5. Free and fair access to the media (for all political parties)

  6. Strengthen public institutions

  7. Stop corruption

  8. Stop dirty politics

Although all the demands are clearly important, the second point, reform of the postal ballot to include all Malaysians living abroad and Malaysian voters within the country who cannot physically be in their constituency on polling day, particularly resonates with me. It should be noted that during Bersih 2007, the similar demand was to abolish postal votes entirely. Currently, regulations exist to restrict postal votes to members of the Armed Forces, public servants serving abroad, full-time students overseas and their spouses. This is in spite of guarantees within the Malaysian Constitution stating that all citizens have a right to vote as absent voters if they are not currently residents of the constituency they are registered to vote in. As a Malaysian living abroad, I would like to vote in my country's elections, but there are currently no avenues for me to do so, short of flying home on short notice, which I simply do not have the resources to do.

With barely six days left to Bersih 2.0, the government has pulled out nearly all the stops to ensure the rally does not proceed, and that the Bersih coalition itself is totally discredited. The Home Ministry announced that Bersih was an outlaw organisaion this morning, that, "Its activities had brought about negative impact on the country's image and threatened public order, security, economic prosperity and the country's sovereignty, and undermined harmony among the people." Arrests have been stepped up for volunteers and social activists promoting Bersih, whether or not they were affiliated to a political party. According to one report, up to about 100 people have been detained. Any paraphernalia deemed related to Bersih is now considered illegal to own. This includes the movement's yellow shirts and pamphlets -- supporters have taken to wearing the yellow shirts covertly, or using some other kind of token, like yellow armbands. Remember, Bersih is meant to be a peaceful movement for freer and fairer elections in Malaysia. It is not about toppling the government, but working with existing structures to improve transparency in the electoral process.

While we're on this, the Malaysian Constitution states, in Article 10(1)b, that: "all citizens have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms". This makes illegalizing a peaceful rally by citizens to negotiate peaceful improvements to our voting system unconstitutional. Citizens have the right to walk, in spite of what the government suggests.

I would finally like to bring to people's attention that there are Bersih rallies being held worldwide, apart from the epicentre in Kuala Lumpur (my home city). The full list of places with participating rallies is on the Global Bersih 2.0 Facebook page. There is going to be a rally in San Francisco. I will be there. It's the very first time I'm walking for anything, and to put it lightly, I am nervous. As you may already have guessed, in my country, that's often deemed outside of the law.

Some resources follow:

1. Bersih's official homepage: http://bersih.org/
2. The Bersih 2.0 wiki page (with lots of references for further reading): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bersih_2.0
3. Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Bersih 2.0 - Why walk?; The Nut Graph: http://www.thenutgraph.com/uncommon-sense-with-wong-chin-huat-bersih-2-0-–-why-walk/
4. Global Bersih 2.0 walks: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Global-Bersih-20/182539641800071?sk=wall#!/pages/Global-Bersih-20/182539641800071?sk=info



Jul. 4th, 2011 07:19 am (UTC)
Nice to read your take on Bersih. Singapore is light-years behind as far as demonstrations and political actions go.
Jul. 4th, 2011 05:58 pm (UTC)
I dare say that with our countries' shared history -- and even considering where they diverge, we both actually still share very similar civil rights' goals. It's often just hard to remember that under all the hubris people say about each other between Singapore and Malaysia.

Hope you're keeping well. :)

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