THE Bersih rallies have quickly established themselves as something of a ritual in Malaysia’s political calendar. The script goes something like this: thousands of protesters declare that they are going to march through Kuala Lumpur to demand electoral reform; a twitchy government and protest leaders spend days haggling over a suitable venue; the protest goes ahead in defiance of police demands; violence ensues, hundreds are arrested; government issues some apologies; everyone goes home. The only significant variant is the political impact. Last year it was huge—this year it will probably be very little.
Bersih means “clean” in Malay, and the Bersih movement is made up of a coalition of NGOs and civil-rights organisations that want the electoral system cleaned up so as to allow all parties a fair chance of winning elections. At the moment many claim that the electoral system is heavily rigged in favour of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), which has been in power continually ever since the country’s independence from Britain began in 1957. The Bersih rallies have thus become inextricably linked to the cause of the opposition, led by Anwar Ibrahim.
The Bersih 3.0 rally on April 28th certainly attracted more people than last year’s version, perhaps as many as 80,000 (although the police put the figure at about half of that). As there will almost certainly be a general election in the coming months, perhaps the high level of interest wasn’t that surprising. But by comparison last year’s rally, despite a relatively smaller number of protesters, achieved a terrific political impact.
At the time the government of Najib Razak badly mishandled the whole situation. Thousands of riot police were captured by video cameras and smart-phones laying into the unarmed protesters in order to disperse them; water cannon were fired into a hospital and more than 1,600 people were arrested. The use of state violence was a huge embarrassment to the government, confirming in many peoples’ minds the impression that the prime minister was indeed a repressive ogre of Malay nationalism and not the reforming liberal that he had claimed.
Stung by widespread criticism in the international press, Mr Najib’s government was forced to apologise for much of its behaviour. Subsequently it repealed a slew of outdated and repressive laws to win back its reforming credentials. A parliamentary committee was also set up to look into proposals for electoral reform. In all, a clear victory to Bersih.
This year it was more of a score-draw. Certainly, towards the end of the rally there was another eruption of violence, and the police were once again seen deploying water cannon and tear gas against the demonstrators. They arrested more than 400 of them. Once again there were reports of police brutality, and once again the prime minister had some quick explaining to do. This time Mr Najib felt obliged to apologise personally to a local reporter who had been beaten up by the police (he was one of several). Once again, these ugly scenes do little to bolster Mr Najib’s claims to be a different kind of reform-minded leader.
However, this year there were problems on the Bersih side too. Some protesters attacked and overturned a police car and it seems that about 20 police officers were wounded. This, of course, played into the government’s hands, allowing Mr Najib to claim that “The police were victims. They became targets and were beaten.” The leader of Bersih, Ambiga Sreenevasan, conceded that some people will think that “the rally had gone wrong” because of the unruly behaviour of a few protesters. The violence may even tarnish the broader movement for democratic reform, a bit. And Mr Anwar had some explaining of his own to do. He was caught on video near one of the police barricades talking to one of his colleagues; critics allege that he was inciting supporters to push aside the barriers. Mr Anwar himself says this is nonsense.
Either way, it is clear that Bersih won’t be able to dominate the moral high ground—at least not on the score of one weekend’s theatrics—as they did last year. The campaign for electoral reform goes on, but Mr Najib emerges from this year’s fracas with his reformist credentials essentially intact, not much worse for the wear.