Malaysians forget quickly. Flashback: 1st July interview on the BERSIH rally, and how far have we come, or have we?

Malaysian authorities have arrested more than 100 people this week, over their support of an electoral reform rally planned for next Saturday, July 9th.

Amnesty International has called for an end to what it described as “the worst repression of free speech and freedom of assembly in Malaysia in recent years.”

Amnesty accused authorities of muzzling calls for electoral reform, by locking up peaceful protestors in jail.

Others in Malaysia say the government crackdown has backfired.

Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Edmund Bon, lawyer & campaigner, The Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism & Human Rights

BON: The Bersih campaign was launched for better, freer and fairer elections. Immediately after its launch, the government started to demonise it, either through its political parties or NGOs and really, the government has snowballed the support for Bersih, when the government could’ve just allowed the rally to go ahead, peacefully for two or three hours, and that’s the end of it. But it now seems to be a political battle of wits and of stamina.

LAM: The objectives of Bersih might’ve been pure, but there’s no doubt though, that the movement has been hijacked by various political interests, particularly, the opposition (coalition of parties) Pakatan Rakyat.

BON: I think that’s quite unfair, because if you cast your mind back to 2007, when we organised the Lawyers’ Walk for Justice, when Bersih organised their massive walk, the invite from all these groups were for all political parties from both sides, Barisan Nasional and Pakatan, to come onboard. Fortunately, or unfortunately, it’s only the Opposition parties that have voiced their support, and this has happened similarly for this Bersih2 rally.

LAM: The Malaysian police have reacted with great gusto to Bersih and also in the leadup to the July 9th rally. Can you tell us what you know of the detentions that have taken place so far?

BON: It’s a series of harassment tactics and a series of ways to try and get people to fear and stop coming out for the rally, basically. Except for the thirty over activists in Penang who were detained, and they were mostly Parti Sosialis Malaysia members, the rest have been arrested, their statements taken and then detained for probably 24 hours and then released.

LAM: And Edmund Bon, you are not personally involved in the Bersih executive, are you?

BON: No, no I’m not involved. I’m a campaigner and a lawyer, who’s interested in these issues. And of course, we provide legal support to whoever needs it.

LAM: Why do you think Bersih needs a public rally, at a time when opposing groups have already warned of trouble? And as you say, the government has already inadvertently publicised Bersih’s message across to large swathes of the Malaysian public. So why is this rally still so important?

BON: I think again, we must cast our minds to 2007. It was very clear then, that a lot of dialogue and alot of meetings with government and the EC (Electoral Commission) did not work, and so the last resort, even for the lawyers was to take it to the streets and to have a show of public demonstration. And again, there were government-linked bodies that were saying they would come down there, to counter the rallies. They were the ones who were inciting the people and yet, we continued and nothing untoward happened. Bersih has spoken to the Elections Commission many many times, on many many occasions and nothing had worked. It’s a right to peaceful assembly for every citizen of Malaysia if dialogue has failed.

LAM: But isn’t it Malaysian law too, that any assembly of more than five people requires a police permit?

BON: That’s a law but many of us in civil society take the position that we have the right to peaceful assembly under the Constitution and that overrides the restriction under the local law.

LAM: And Edmund Bon, Malaysia seems to have taken on the political hues of Thailand, which for the past four years have been troubled by the Red and Yellow Shirt movements – and now Bersih has adopted yellow, pro-Barisan Nasional or UMNO folk have chosen red. Do you think the capital Kuala Lumpur may descend into mayhem, similar to what happened in Bangkok?

BON: No, absolutely not. Malaysia and Malaysians, we’re peaceful people, we’re not like Thailand. Yellow was chosen as the royal colour in 2007 by Bersih. Of course, red chosen by UMNO or UMNO Youth or government-linked bodies, it’s their prerogative. If you have a group saying, “We want to be peaceful” and then you have other groups saying “We want to counter you, and not be peaceful,” then of course, you should not be clamping down on the peaceful group, you need to clamp down on the group that wants to see violence.

Bersih has spoken to the police and said, give us a route, tell us the best route and we’ll follow that route. And the police has not come back to Bersih on that.

LAM: Well, I guess the police is very clear – it does not want Bersih to proceed with the rally.

On to another matter, Edmund Bon, you’re involved also in a Malaysian voter education – you’re quite passionate about that. Can you tell us why?

BON: I think in Malaysia, there is extreme polarisation of views and political support. It’s no longer about issues that affect the Malaysian public, it’s more about personalities and party support. It’s either you’re with Pakatan or you’re not. You’re either with Barisan Nasional or you’re not. And that has driven away a lot of youths, from taking part in the process, the political process, the political discourse. There’re many, many youths in Malaysia who’re apathetic or who’re totally disinterested. And I think it’s time to activate those youths in a way that’s non-partisan, and therefore, we’ve started this new initiative called ‘Undi Malaysia’ (Malaysia Votes), something that works with local communities to try and bring up issues they should be speaking about on the electoral platform, like food, health, housing, water, freedom of expression, education.

LAM: How do you think the Barisan Nasional government might respond to that?

BON: We’re engaging all parties, all sectors. We’re non-partisan.We’ve been speaking to different government organisations, different government-linked bodies. I think there’s no doubt that they’ve been very supportive, the representatives of UMNO, PAS, Pakatan Rakyat. And they’ve been very welcoming of us, so we hope to see a better future for all Malaysians through this campaign.

Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (MCCHR) is a non-profit based in Kuala Lumpur with the mission of promoting active democratic participation and human rights awareness.