Malaysia: Thousands of people protest in Kuala Lumpur for clean and fair elections

Massive crackdown on opposition

The 9 July 2011 BERSIH (Malaysian democracy movement) ‘walk for democracy’ protest will be recorded as another important date in the fight for freedom and democracy in Malaysia. It is the country’s biggest political protest in four years, in which 20,000 to 30,000 people (organisers estimated up to 50,000) participated. The majority of protesters were young people in their 20s and this was their first experience of demonstrating. They gathered and marched through various places in Kuala Lumpur to demand fair and clean elections, as well democratic rights. These very determined and brave crowds defied various threats for the last three weeks from the ruling government. Meanwhile, the counter-protest planned by UMNO (United Malay National Organizations) youths only managed to attract around 500 people, mainly the ruling parties’ members. On the same day, small gatherings and demonstrations of Malaysians abroad were also held in more than 20 cities across the world including Singapore, Bangkok, London and Melbourne to support BERSIH.

However, 1667 people were detained, including some leaders of the organisers and opposition parties on the day of the protest in Kuala Lumpur in which the police used tear gas and chemical-laced water in repeated attempts to disperse the crowds. The police armed with batons also physically attacked some protesters and inhumanely dragged them into trucks in which some were seen bleeding. One protester was even reported to have died during the protest in Kuala Lumpur City Centre during the tear gas attack by police.

Massive Crackdown on Oppositions

Since announcing the demos on 19 June, BERSIH 2.0 -the coalition for clean and fair elections, which was initiated by NGOs as well as civil society groups and supported by opposition parties – has been threatened and undermined by the UMNO-dominated BN (national front) government. First, they detained PSM (Parti Sosialis Malaysia) supporters, during the ‘Enough BN, Retire Now!’ campaign, accusing them of ‘waging war against the King’ and then extended the detention of six of them under Emergency Ordinance for ‘subversive connections’. Then, they banned the wearing of the BERSIH yellow shirt which has demands for fair and clean elections written on it. Subsequently, they outlawed BERSIH 2.0, stating that this is not a registered organisation. They also threatened people against participating in the protest through negative propaganda in the mainstream media, almost all of which is controlled by the government. They also issued circulars to students in universities and public service employees against participating in the protests and incessant warnings that severe actions would be taken against them if they ignored these instructions.

The threats, which could see a person detained for up to 60 days or more, have also been unleashed to create fears. For the first time in many years, they even threatened the use of the military to control the crowd at the protest. They also indirectly used the ultra right-wing groups, PERKASA and UMNO youth, to counter and undermine BERSIH. A week before the protest, they had put up massive roadblocks throughout the country to stop ‘suspicious’ busses and cars coming towards Kuala Lumpur. Lastly, they restricted the main leaders of the opposition parties and BERSIH organisers from entering the city center by court order. On the day of the protests, Kuala Lumpur was practically locked down when the police blocked roads, shut rail stations and deployed water-cannon trucks at all ‘hot spots’. More than 200 people were detained before the day of the protest for various activities related to BERSIH, merely to threaten others not to participate in the protest.

In fact, a few days before the protest, under pressure, the prime minister, Najib Razak offered the BERSIH a stadium for the protest. Even the monarch had to intervene to stabilise the situation. Although the BERSIH organisers had agreed to use the stadium for the protest, as well as agreed to the ‘advice of the King’, later the government itself contradicted its ‘noble attempt’ by reneging on its own promise by not giving the permit to the organiser. Indeed, all these processes and contradictions created by the police and government ministers have further undermined the Najib government among the population.

Youthful and Lively March

The protest was planned for 2pm to gather near the Stadium Merdeka where it supposed to be led by BERSIH leaders. But the police started to intimidate and detain anyone suspected with the intention of participating in the protest as early as 7am at all gathering spots. The momentum for the protest started when a group of young people started to march at the Masjid Jamek, then through Petaling Street at around 12pm, while the other groups merged and it grew bigger and bigger until it converged in Jalan Pudu and later marched towards Kuala Lumpur City Center. There were also groups gathered around KL central, Stadium Merdeka and various other places because of the police blockade of main roads within Kuala Lumpur.

Most of the time, the protest and march were stewarded and led by mainly young people who were also managed and led the crowds as well as directed the march. During the march, the protesters shouted many anti-government and pro-BERSIH slogans, among them were, ‘democracy now’, ‘long live BERSIH’, ‘clean up the elections’, ‘reformasi’, ‘end the BN government’ etc. Along the march, local and foreign workers working in the shops and hotels, gave thumbs up signs and waves to the crowds to show their support. Even on one occasion, when the protesters were chased by riot police, some migrant workers working as guards asked the protesters to converge in their guarded space, and some residents and onlookers provided food and drinks to protesters. Even some rank and file police lined along the KLCC waved and shook hands with the protesters to show their support.

Youth unite with Working Class

This protest has again showed the potential and courage of the youth which made this protest a huge success. It could have garnered far bigger support if there weren’t unnecessary road blocks and irresponsible threats and fears created by the government authorities.

Nevertheless, the program of BERSIH is limited to calling for ‘fair and clean elections’, and have not try to address the social and economic needs of the working class majority as well as the youth, as a consequence of the pro-capitalist policies and agenda of the BN government which has always rather served the profit-making needs of national and global capitalists. If BERSIH’s demands had been linked to a programme that addressed the social and economic needs of the working class, this could also have attracted more working class people to support the protests as well.

The capitalist system that is upheld by the BN government has not only seen the government become increasingly more undemocratic over years, but also continuously diminishing the economic and social position of working class and the youth, regardless of their race or religion. BERSIH intention was only to have a protest for two hours in Kuala Lumpur. Even then, the government was more keen to protect the profits and needs of the business class in Kuala Lumpur, arguing that the protest would make them lose millions, but totally ignored the democratic demands of the BERSIH.

At the same time, some like Mahathir (former Prime Minister) even argued that the change of government as in the recent experiences of uprising of Egypt and Tunisia that overthrown Mubarak and Ben Ali dictatorships have not made Egyptians Tunisians’ lives better but made the economy worse. People like Mahathir and his cronies that have been benefitting from the BN pro-capitalist policies merely want to defend the BN government without any solutions for the working masses and youth who are looking for alternatives.

As CWI has argued, the experiences in Egypt and Tunisia have shown that the victories by the working class and youth that toppled dictators, have not guaranteed that the society’s wealth will genuinely owned by the masses and democratically controlled and managed in their interests and needs. This is because those countries are still managed by pro-capitalist regimes with the tendency of maintaining the country in the clutch of capitalist system which prioritises maximising profits. This experience reinforces the CWI’s argument that if the Pakatan Rakyat opposition, which also propagates free market capitalism, come into power, there may be possibilities to get better democratic rights under the pressure of the masses, but at the same time the new government would not be able to reallt address the worsening needs of the working masses if the government is still under the grip of national and global capitalists.

Therefore, the struggle for democratic rights must be linked with the struggles for economic and social gains, and this only possible if the capitalist system is replaced by a system based on democratic socialism- a system that prioritises the needs and welfare of the working masses, youth and others through democratic planning, not only in Egypt and Tunisia, but also in Malaysia. The events in Egypt, Tunisia and many other countries in the world have shown that, on its own, willingness to struggle is not enough. The needs and aspiration of the working class and youths for better society wo will not be defended or achieved by pro-capitalist parties. Therefore, the working masses and youth need to be independently and democratically organised in a mass party of workers, youth and the poor with a clear programme based on democratic socialism, to be able to fight to prevent the gains of their struggles being snatched away by the old elite or a new elite in formation. This is the crucial task for the working class and the energetic youth of Malaysia towards building a democratic socialist society, not only to safeguard democratic rights but also our fundamental economic and social needs.

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July 2011