Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Lessons for BN from Bersih ruling - Jeswan Kaur

The High Court verdict has brought smiles on the faces of those who risked life and limb demanding that the Barisan Nasional-led government make the much-needed electoral reforms.

First, the Najib Tun Razak administration made a fool of itself when it said “no” and then “yes” to the July 9, 2011 “Walk for Democracy” rally organised by Bersih. Then it misused its authority to outlaw the movement.

Now it learns its lesson the embarrassing way – one year after Bersih 2.0 was deemed illegal by the government, the High Court yesterday declared it otherwise.

It came as a huge relief when the High Court (Appellate and Special Powers Division) judge Rohana Yusof said that Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein’s order made last year was quashed.

Rohana ruled that it was “unreasonable” for the minister to find Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) unlawful for the serious reason of being “prejudicial to public order and security” on July 1 and subsequently on July 5 and 9 the authorities continued to negotiate with the organisers and allowed the rally.

“It cannot be the case that one week after that, such reason is no longer valid or applicable… the declaration should be lifted accordingly,” she said.

Bersih had accused Hishammuddin of using his powers for ulterior purposes rather than out of a genuine desire to preserve public order.

In the judicial review case filed on July 8 last year, a day before its mammoth rally in Kuala Lumpur, Bersih 2.0 sought to quash the minister’s order which declared it an unlawful society.

On Sept 28, the High Court granted leave for a judicial review. Bersih 2.0 was seeking an order of certiorari to quash the Home Minister’s order dated July 1, last year declaring Bersih 2.0 an unlawful society and a declaration that the order is null and void and of no effect.

The High Court’s verdict has brought smiles on the faces of those who risked life and limb demanding that the Barisan Nasional-led government make the much-needed electoral reforms.

To Bersih co-chairperson A Samad Said, it was a day of relief knowing Bersih had been vindicated.
“It was a waste of time, energy and resources and the order to make us illegal should never have been made,” he had said after the High Court ruling.

Samad, a national laureate, said Hishammuddin’s order not only tarnished Bersih but gave the impression it was “kotor” (unclean), causing many people to fear supporting it.

“With this decision, we can clearly see the contradictory actions of the authorities,” he said.

Listen first and speak later

Had Hishammuddin as the Home Minister practised the art of “listen first and speak later”, the July 9, 2011 rally could have proceeded peacefully, as was pledged by Bersih 2.0 chairperson and former Malaysian Bar president S Ambiga.

Instead, Hishammuddin resorted to bullying tactics, giving Bersih ultimatums and run-arounds in reaffirming the venue of the rally.

Hishammuddin should take the cue from the decision made by Rohana in declaring Bersih 2.0 a free entity.
In her judgment, Rohana said that the conduct of the respondents after Bersih was declared illegal did not reflect the seriousness of it being “prejudicial to public order and security”.

“The decision to outlaw Bersih impinges on the rights guaranteed under the Federal Constitution and should not be taken in just a lackadaisical manner. If it is found to be a threat to the security of the nation, the conduct of the respondents in treating Bersih certainly shows the opposite,” she said.

While a year has slipped by after the Bersih 2.0 protest, it is not too late for both Hishammuddin and his cousin Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to engage in some serious introspection and learn that it never pays to “put the cart before the horse”.

Also, instead of shooting from the hip as Hishammuddin did in the Bersih 2.0 case, it is in the best interest of the government to wise up and study the issue at hand before announcing any ultimatums.

Now there is a question mark over Hishammuddin’s ability to “do his job” since the crackdown on Bersih has backfired.

Lessons from Bersih, then and now

With hindsight, had the BN government been matured enough in determining the seriousness of the demands made by Bersih, the whole Bersih saga could have experienced a happy ending – without casualties, physical abuse, arm twisting.

The Bersih 2.0 protest drew 10,000 to 50,000 people but was ignored by Najib. Thus the movement was forced to marshall yet another demonstration, this time on April 28 this year at Kuala Lumpur’s iconic Dataran Merdeka site.

Ironically, this year’s sit-in protest ended up becoming the “mother of all protests”, with Bersih estimating the turnout at 250,000.

(Bersih 2.0 also saw the birth of Global Bersih, a movement by Malaysian diaspora communities lending support to Bersih and its cause by organsing rallies the world over.)

So much had happened and yet the government refused to listen. If last year BN had roped in some local actors to denounce the July 9 rally, this time the government made sure all the television stations aired snippets depicting Bersih as dirty and fuelled by bad intentions aimed at smearing the so-called good image of the BN government.

Is that how a responsible government of the day behaves – trying to outmanoeuvre the rakyat who wanted to uphold truth and fairness at the polls?

Bersih 2.0 had painstakingly argued time and again that it is a coalition of 62 NGOs and civil societies with no political parties in the coalition, in contrast with the first Bersih of 2007. And that the Registrar of Societies could not deem Bersih 2.0 illegal as it was a “movement” and not a society by virtue of the fact that it was a coalition with no fixed membership.

Honestly, it is pointless for the government to continue to harass and crucify Bersih all for the sake of ensuring its own survival come election.

Mistakes made can often exert a heavy price and the BN government chooses to remain oblivious to this and continues to fire its salvoes at Bersih – but for how long more?

Jeswan Kaur is a freelance writer and a FMT columnist.

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