Malaysia’s increasingly embattled government, facing its worst political crisis since independence and an unprecedented uniting of the country’s racial groups, has answered calls for dialogue and reform with tear gas and water cannons.
Tens of thousands marched on Saturday in the biggest protest Kuala Lumpur has seen in years to demand electoral reform. They defied a central city lockdown, police violence and counter-rallies by pro-government groups. The peaceful anti-government Bersih rallies in old Kuala Lumpur’s golden triangle, an area that takes in Chinatown and Little India, were met with brute force, catching scores of tourist families and backpackers in the crossfire.
The success of Bersih is a major blow to the increasingly unpopular government of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who many analysts say only avoided losing power in a disastrous election in 2008 by fraud. "If there was (electoral) reform, maybe the opposition would win," said one protester on Saturday.
In 2008, Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition for the first time lost the two thirds parliamentary majority needed to change the constitution. Opposition parties now rule a large number of the country’s states, including some of the richest. The 2008 election was UMNO’s worst performance since independence in 1957.
"All they did was create a million more dissidents and protesters (on Saturday)," says one analyst who, like many people in a country with no freedom of speech, a draconian Internal Security act and a corrupt and violent police force, was too afraid to be named. "If they had let this go ahead, hardly anyone would have noticed. But instead, they have just created so many, many more enemies."
In a racially diverse nation where former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s policies of positive discrimination for ethnic Malays have divided the country, Saturday’s rally was notable for bringing Malays, Chinese and Indians together.
"Everybody was there," says Mahes, an ethnic Indian businessman who, like many others, turned up at the last minute, angry at the government’s tactics to crush the protest. "I have never seen this before. Malays side by side with Indians and Chinese."
It also brought together a broad cross-section of Malaysian society — from international businessmen, to artists, mothers, children and taxi drivers.
"The system is bad and we need to change. So it’s time to change for the Malaysian people. It’s time to change the government," said Jack Sharil, a chef from Borneo, as we ducked low and ran to the back of a building to escape the gas and water cannons. "This is people power. We need to clean everything. Change everything."
Najib’s challenge is how to put down the growing dissent and regain popularity ahead of elections due in 2013. Some analysts predict he may call as early as October as the government loses its base.
The political upheaval is also distracting the government from economic reforms, such as cutting costly subsidies, vital to boosting the economy, with growth forecast at a little more than 5 per cent in 2011.
Najib faces allegations of corruption and a possible court appearance in France over a widely questioned multi-billion dollar deal a decade ago — when he was defence minister under Mahathir — to buy Scorpone submarines.
Malaysia is still deeply emotionally scarred by the race riots of 1969, which led to Najib’s father, Tun Razak, taking power. But this time it’s about democracy and the failure of a strong economy to deliver benefits to all.
"People at the bottom aren’t sharing the benefits," says a former official with the Malaysian Chinese Association, a major player in the ruling coalition. "They know those at the top are getting all the money. They are getting none. The Malays know these policies are not helping them. It’s making things worse for them."
It’s impossible to know how many people turned out on Saturday: because of the security lockdown, the protest was broken up into different groups and some protesters went from group to group.
But one thing is clear: it’s not over.
"We went there unarmed, knowing full well we could lose their lives from a demonic, lawless, power-crazed, fraudulent government," wrote one local blogger.
"Literally ants standing up to armored trucks. We survived … and we’ll do it again and again and again until the election cheats are thrown out of government in a fair election. Just look at the incredible unity across the globe from the entire Malaysian diaspora. You can see that Malaysians really love their country. I’d say the People of Malaysia won a crushing victory."
Amnesty International called the official handling of the protest "the worst campaign of repression we’ve seen in (Malaysia) for years," while Human Rights Watch said it was "a maelstrom of the Malaysian authorities’ own making."
The government has declared the opposition-backed Bersih, an umbrella group for more than 60 legal non-government organisations, illegal and says it acted to protect national security. Several hundred people were arrested and some, already restrained, were assaulted by police as they were led away.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein insisted in a statement issued on Sunday that the demonstrators sought to "create chaos in this country and hoped to be arrested in order to portray the government as cruel".
Hishammuddin praised police, saying they performed their duties with "bravery, fairness and integrity" while confronting what he called provocative actions by protesters. He also claimed authorities over the past week discovered hidden stashes of weapons, homemade firebombs and other dangerous items that protesters might have used, AP reported.
But as the tear gas drifted off over the Kelang River and the water from the cannon washed down the drain in the rain, some of the riot police waiting for their ride home resorted to a popular money-making scheme here — shaking down Burmese refugees.
"Why are you taking photos?" asked one. "Go away."
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