KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 11 — The growth of civil society activism following Bersih 2.0's annual rallies may have inspired copycat gatherings nationwide but its co-chairman Datuk Ambiga Sreenavasan has disagreed that this could have spurred civil disobedience among the country's youths.
The prominent former Bar Council president and civil society activist told The Malaysian Insider that gatherings like the Merdeka eve "Janji Demokrasi" should not be blamed for the controversial picture-stomping incident involving a group of teenagers.
"We have been having more such gatherings around... not just Bersih... like the green movement, and so on. It is common and there is no wrong in it.
"And for me, it is really how these things are handled by the authorities on the ground, and of course, the organisers," she said.
Ambiga, who is a co-chairman of the 82-member Bersih 2.0 election watchdog, noted that added frequency of more such public gatherings should be expected as a natural precursor to any fully functioning democracy in the world.
They should not be misconstrued as a deliberate plan to create a "mob culture" in society , she said.
"To be honest, the police are getting better and better and things are becoming pleasant.
"If things are handled well, there will be no problem. A lot of these (problems) arise from the behaviour of the police and the organisers of such events," she added.
But although "Janji Demokrasi" had been organised by a number of Bersih 2.0's member groups, Ambiga insisted that the event itself had not condoned the teenagers' offensive behaviours.
During the gathering, a group of youths believed to be participants, were seen stomping on and mooning over the photographs of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, his wife and Election Commission (EC) chairman Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof.
Ambiga said the youths' actions was never encouraged, pointing out that the other "Janji Demokrasi" participants had behaved in "exemplary" fashion, setting an "excellent example for these children".
"I do not see any relationship between the two incidents. The Janji Demokrasi gathering... they were so well-behaved," she said.
According to Bernama Online yesterday, a total of 427 police reports have since been lodged on the incident, which had immediately kicked off a firestorm of protests from government leaders.
The police have also formed three special teams to investigate the matter under the Sedition Act, the Peaceful Assembly Act and the Penal Code, apart from detaining several teenagers who had come forward to admit that they were part of the group destroying the photographs.
One 19-year-old student who admitted to mooning over the pictures have also been expelled from college for showing disrespect to a national leader.
Joining many other civil society activists and opposition leaders, Ambiga spoke out in defence of the youths, and slammed the authorities for meting such harsh punishment upon those who have been detained.
She said photographs in the media showing how at least two youths, including the 19-year-old boy and a female teenager, were handcuffed for such minor acts of disrespect had "shocked and disgusted her".
"When I read how they were handcuffed, pictures in the press and their poor parents put in a position to apologise... my own view is that this is pure intimidation against these two youths, who at best, you can say they were just involved in a prank.
"I do not condone it but they are young... it is shocking, really, and very frankly, I was disgusted with how they were treated," she said.
The prominent lawyer added that the actions of the youths were in no way seditious in nature as at such a young age, they were merely following in the footsteps of the adult politicians who have oftentimes been seen performing the same offensive acts but were allowed to go unpunished.
"So my view here is that the government, the authorities are using a nuclear weapon to kill a fly.
"You do not deal with youths in this manner - they have their whole lives ahead of them but in just one event, you have greatly traumatised them and stolen away their futures," she said.
Ambiga suggested that a mere verbal reprimand should have been enough to set the teenagers back on the right path, if at all the government wanted to punish them for their actions.
Otherwise, she said the incident should have merely been ignored as the public uproar over the youths' actions over the Internet should have helped teach them a lesson.
Many opposition politicians have railed against the authorities for acting so speedily to reprimand the youths for the incident when they had failed to do the same against pro-Umno, pro-BN and Perkasa activists who had in the past committed the same offences.
The Malay right wing group Perkasa had in May this year organised a mock funeral for Penang Chief Minister and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng.
The group's leaders, as well as other pro-Umno activists have also held numerous protests where the photographs of prominent Pakatan Rakyat (PR) leaders and Ambiga herself.
The Bersih 2.0 leader had also found herself the target of such attacks following the group's last rally in the city earlier this year.
Shortly after the event, a group of traders erected a burger stall outside her home, deliberately handing out beef burgers in a direct insult to Ambiga, who is not only vegetarian but also a Hindu.
Apart from that, a group of army veterans had also performed butt exercises outside her home.