In my time as a newspaper columnist, few events have generated so much commentary in so short a time as Bersih 3.0. By now gigabytes of photographs and video material must have been uploaded and shared, despite the recorded cases of seizure and smashing of equipment that occurred on the day. One might have thought that this sheer amount of data might be able to provide a comprehensive picture of what really happened.
On the contrary, amidst accusations of editing, Photoshop enhancing and devious cut-and-paste there seems to be enough material for those who have already taken sides to harden their stances, with no quantity of counter-evidence being sufficient to sway their positions. As Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah – possibly the most erudite member of the government – has said, Bersih 3.0 (and its aftermath) show deep divisions in our society.
I was not a frontline witness on Saturday: in the morning I attended the Global Donors Forum organised by the World Congress of Muslim Philanthropists outside the Middle East for the first time. (The event brought together civil society organisations from across the Muslim world to discuss how to improve and target charitable giving to strengthen the ummah. I argued that philanthropy thrives when wealth thrives, and that Muslim societies should pursue open economies and democratic government so that they can compete intellectually, culturally and economically.)
En route to the event, I had to negotiate through a police roadblock at Jalan Parlimen, and immediately saw columns of people percolating through the Bank Negara roundabout towards Dataran Merdeka. Later in the afternoon I was on Jalan Ampang and witnessed an orderly line of policemen guiding a horde of protestors outside KLCC in a scene reminiscent of the many marches I saw in London. I was very impressed and excited by this, and thought of having a closer look after my previously set appointments at the former Istana Negara and lunch in town, as I was due at the nearby Royal Lake Club at 330pm (which had earlier been a starting point for many marchers.)
Alas it was around that time that chemical compounds were fired and sprayed into the crowd at Dataran Merdeka – whether due to a breach by agent provocateurs or genuine protestors who were goaded, encouraged or given false pretences – and the whole thing deteriorated. This is where accounts diverge. It’s worth pointing out, however, that across the country and globe where simultaneous protests were held in dozens of cities (easily the biggest international Malaysian rally in history), there were no reports of violence at all.
As I have written before, I agree with many of the Bersih’s demands. But I fully support the right of peaceful protest and have the utmost respect for my relatives, friends and colleagues (and many of their elderly parents) who took part that day, fully in the knowledge that they might be confronted. They include people who may have little in common with each other, but were generally united in pursuing cleaner elections in our country. Some friends did complain that the politicians took too visible a role, and it should have been more solidly a civil society effort, but this seems to be true peculiarly at Dataran Merdeka itself. Certainly many participants deemed it a good day for Malaysian democracy, despite the ugly end.
Most ugly of all – and indeed, heartbreaking – were the instances of apparently unprovoked police aggression that day: more the actual beatings of individuals, than the firing of tear gas and water cannon. Though the aggression was later attributed to rumours of a policeman being killed by protestors, that these violent instances occurred has now been recognised either tacitly (by way of apology to victims) or explicitly by the Prime Minister, Home Minister and Inspector-General of Police. Now that they have been admitted, every Malaysian should hope that investigations are conducted properly. If, as some photographs suggest, some of these thugs are not policemen at all, they and whoever issued them with uniforms must be punished. Of course, any thugs amongst the protestors should also face justice.
Also repugnant was the censoring of the coverage by Al-Jazeera and the BBC. Malaysians expect certain domestic newspapers to report things in a certain way, and of course that’s not ideal either – but messing about with two internationally respected news channels is paranoid, immature and bad for business, if the numerous threats by customers to cancel their subscription packages become true.
Bersih 3.0 until 3.30 pm seemed like a graduation ceremony for Malaysian democracy, but the mortarboards didn’t quite make it into the air. There may be one or two more tests yet.
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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS.
Image Credit: Digital Journal