Malaysia’s July 9th showdown: Bersih’s battle for clean elections in a post-Tahrir world

The usually quiet country of Malaysia is headed toward a showdown tomorrow between democratic reformers and police. For weeks the coalition of NGOs known as Bersih has called for peaceful marches to happen on July 9th. Bersih is Malay for clean, which echoes their demands for clean and fair elections. Even though Bersih has claimed that they want change through elections, and that these rallies are not meant to overthrow current leaders, the government has responded with a variety of overzealous and harsh reactions.

Despite the fact that all the 62 organizations in Bersih’s coalition are registered, last week the government declared Bersih an illegal organization. They have used Berish’s new illegal status as reason to arrest over 200 activists, some for merely wearing Bersih t-shirts. The police have said possessing Bersih items can land you in jail. Many are still being held without cause. Government officials also began arranging their own NGOs or GONGOs to hold counter demonstrations, potentially to incite violence with which to blame on Bersih. The clamor from all branches of the government has been extensive. It was not just one sector of the government, but even the Tourism Minister and the Women, Family and Community Development Minister that joined in the uproar, claiming that Bersih would create Tahrir Square-style unrest and lead to further problems for the country.

Bersih chairwoman Ambiga Sreenevasan has tried to erase these false fears. She has said:

I think the authorities are caught in a time warp…Perhaps they are paranoid because of the protests in the Middle East, but it’s completely unnecessary. All we’re aiming for are clean elections.

A few days ago Malaysia’s King stepped in to try and ease the situation, and a deal was reached to move the rally from the streets and into a stadium. Nevertheless, Information Minister Rais Yatim declared soon after that Bersih would not be allowed to hold an event in any stadium.

Bersih has remained stalwart despite all the pressure and intimidation. They are still planning on meeting at the Stadium Merdeka in downtown Kuala Lumpur tomorrow at 2pm, even though they have not been given a permit. Bersih has announced:

No government agency has any right whatsoever to prevent Malaysians from exercising their freedom of movement and access to our capital city. No threat or intimidation can overturn this fundamental truth.

Bersih has continued to build support, despite the physical and political roadblocks being thrown in their place.

A look at Bersih’s twitter feed shows their staunch preparations for tomorrow:

– It such a joke now that more people are comin @bersih2 even as they know theres real chance of arrest. This is overcoming fear as it’s best

@bersih2 People going tomorrow, please bring towel, to cover your face in case of tear gas, water to drink and salt. to rehydrate.

– We, those already in KL will buy yellow flowers n peacefully offer them to the police tmr 😉 @bersih2. Let’s all do the same.

This build up of political fervor is unusual for Malaysia. While Malaysia’s ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional has been in power since independence in 1957, it is not known for being a totalitarian state. Freedom House ranks the country as “partly free.” Would the Malaysian government’s response be as severe if Tahrir Square had never happened? Malaysia seems to be the example of public protest in a post-Tahrir world, one where governments understand the might of people power and therefore their knee-jerk reaction is to stop it at all measures.

You can read updates about the on-going crackdown against activists here or Bersih’s violations report map.

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