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"Strong Malay Support for Bersih", a Commentary by Ooi Kee Beng

2016/74, 23 November 2016

The Malay turnout at the Bersih demonstration in Kuala Lumpur on November 19 calling for good governance and clean elections was visible and proportionate enough in relation to Malaysia’s ethnic demographics for accusations that the movement is a conspiracy run by Malaysian Chinese to be dismissed for good.

Highly significant in this context was the attendance of former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed and family, and his followers, including former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, was undeniably poignant. Clearly, his recently formed Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) put in an extra effort to be seen at the forefront of the movement that is aimed at garnering support against Prime Minister Najib Razak, with the general elections in mind.

Mahathir had rushed back from a visit to Sudan in order to be present at the event, stepping off his plan clad in a Bersih T-shirt. He gave a speech calling for a change of government.

Apart from 14 arrests made before and after the event of several key figures, including Maria Chin Abdullah, the chairman of the organizing body, Bersih 2.0, the huge rally proceeded peacefully. Maria is reported to be in solitary confinement, held under the anti-terrorist Special Offences (Security Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA), which allows the 60-year-old Maria to be legally detained for 28 days without trial. Her eldest son, Azumin Yunus, has lodged a report against the conditions of her detention, and her family, after a short meeting with her, now has no knowledge of where she is presently being kept.

Public fear that counter demonstrations by anti-Bersih groups would lead to violence was calmed after their leader, Jamal Yunos, was arrested by police at 1.30am in the morning, just hours before the rally was to begin. His red-shirted followers were sidelined by the peaceful dynamics of the day, and some of them kept themselves hydrated in the hot sun with water offered them by Bersih supporters.

Dataran Merdeka, the planned destination for the marchers was cordoned off by police, with streets leading to it being barricaded. This blockade led the demonstrators to converge around the Petronas Twin Towers instead. These towers thus provided the backdrop for the sea of yellow T-shirts worn by the estimated 40,000 people participating in the event. Many others could not get through the barriers and their presence in Kuala Lumpur’s central district was not visibly captured. Much effort was made to avoid confrontations, either with the police or the counter-demonstrators.

Maria Chin’s release from detention will be a major point of political contention in the coming month.

Prime Minister Najib was in Peru attending the 2016 APEC Leaders’ Summit.

Dr Ooi Kee Beng is Deputy Director, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.