Malaysian petitioners defy police

Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob
Asia Sentinel
11 Nov 07

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Berisih) is an umbrella group encompassing 64 civil-society groups and five opposition political parties.Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters and baton-wielding police turn Kuala Lumpur’s streets into chaos

Central Kuala Lumpur turned chaotic Saturday as baton-wielding riot police used water cannon and tear gas to try and thwart an attempt by tens of thousands of marchers to deliver a petition to Malaysia’s king, asking for royal intervention in delivering electoral reform.

“There is a massive jam all over town, as the police have set up road barricades everywhere,” a witness told Asia Sentinel in the morning. “A lot of entry points into the city are being monitored by the police. A heavy, heavy rain just subsided and one wonders whether this will dampen the turnout for the march.”

It didn’t. As many as 40,000 people struggled to make their way into the city center in defiance of the police ban on the rally before heading for the Istana Negara, the king’s palace.

The confrontation between the country’s nine sultans and the government appears to be deepening as well, with Mizan Zainal Abidin, the Sultan of Terengganu, who currently holds the rotating kingship and is Malaysia’s constitutional head of state, ordering his royal guards to stand aside so that the marchers could deliver the petition despite the fact that police had refused to grant a permit for the rally. The delegation, led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, handed the memorandum to the King’s secretary at the gate of the Istana Negara at 4 pm, accompanied by PAS’ Hadi Awang and Nasharuddin Mat Isa and DAP’s Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng. The organisers then asked the crowd to disperse.

Malaysia’s mainstream press, owned by the ethnic political parties, carried nothing on their websites about the protest, the biggest in Malaysia in a decade. Popular websites were jammed, apparently by government-allied cyber-jammers.

The protests were led by an organization called Bersih, or the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, an umbrella group encompassing 64 civil-society groups and five opposition political parties. The action Saturday was in direct defiance to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who earlier vowed that the government would crack down on the demonstrators. “We will not hesitate to take action against those who defied our orders,” state news agency Bernama quoted Kuala Lumpur police chief Zul Hasnan Najib as saying. The police had refused to grant a permit for the rally.

Abdullah Badawi Friday told a meeting of the leaders of the United Malays National Organization, the leading ethnic party in the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, that the government would not tolerate street demonstrations. “They are challenging the patience of the people who want the country to be peaceful and stable. That is what they are challenging, not me,” he told party leaders.

The protest is by far the biggest in KL since anti-government protests in 1998 that led to the arrest and jailing of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who now in effect leads the Parti Keadilan Rakyat despite regulations that bar him from political activity. The rally demonstrates vividly the growing dissatisfaction with Abdullah Badawi and raises questions of how strong his hold is on his own party or the government, since the protesters largely achieved their goals. And, with a sizable percentage of ethnic Malays as well as Chinese and Indians in the protest, it also demonstrates growing dissatisfaction with Malaysia’s race-based politics.

The protests have been sparked by continuing reports of rigged elections, judicial irregularities, widespread corruption in the dominant ethnically-based political parties, which have been in power since the country won independence from the British in 1957, and the perceived weakness of Badawi. In particular, the protesters point to a by-election in the town of Ijok in April, which the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition won in the face of what looked like a solid challenge by Parti Keadilan.

A Malaysian blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, charged earlier that of the 12,000 voters in the district, some 1,700 were phantom voters, with people as old as 107 still on the rolls. Others listed as voters were as young as eight years old. The ruling coalition outspent the opposition massively and, others charged, also bused in voters.

On Saturday, the government posted 4,000 police from the Field Reserve Unit to block all roads leading into Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), the former cricket pitch in front of the colonial-era Selangor Club. That brought Kuala Lumpur’s always chaotic traffic to a standstill and nearly paralyzed the city. Protesters abandoned vehicles and streamed toward the city center. They were asked to wear yellow as the color of the day because, according to flyers handed out all over the city, it is “the color for citizen action worldwide and the color for the press-freedom movement.” It also happens to be the color for Malaysia’s royalty.

And, although the country’s most prominent weblogs and Internet publications were largely shut down, the power of the Internet and cellphones was again vividly demonstrated by Malaysia Today, an Internet publication that posted minute-by-minute reports from witnesses, delivering such messages as “Walkers are gathering in hundreds near Jalan Melayu (Malaya Road) Gate.”

As websites were blocked, Malaysia Today delivered messages directing readers to other websites that were delivering eyewitness reports on the demonstrators until it too was shut down.

“Another big group is walking toward the palace and two FRU (Field Reserve Unit) trucks are following them,” anon. wrote at 3:23pm. Said another, “We managed to reach the slope opposite the entrance to Istana Negara (the king’s palace) at around 1pm, the Istana was sealed off! Are they putting our King under house arrest or protecting His Majesty from what?”

At 3:26, the site reported that Malaysiakini, the leading online news site in the country, was running into communications problems. From that point forward, Malaysiakini was only online sporadically.

The website warned people not to wear yellow as they walked toward the city center, but to don the colors once they were inside.

At 3:34, another correspondent wrote that he could see police firing water cannons at demonstrators. “It is shameful for the government to resort to that,” he wrote.

Seven members of Bersih including the opposition party leaders were allowed to go to the gate to hand in the memorandum calling for the king’s intervention in bringing poll reforms.

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