Wednesday 8 June 2011

Civil disobedience, race barriers and the Bersih rally

COMMENT A writer friend of mine in Kuala Lumpur is a firm supporter of the upcoming Walk for Democracy rally on July 9, despite having been arrested during a candlelight vigil against the Internal Security Act (ISA) last August.

Bersih, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, announced on its website that “Bersih 2.0 has been actively advocating electoral reform but our demands have fallen on deaf ears. The time has come for those mandated to administer the nation to 'listen to the voices of the rakyat'. There is a clamour worldwide for greater democratisation of societies and we would invite those in power to heed those voices”.

bersih rally istana negara tv 101107 large crowdThis Bersih rally is a sequel to the first in 2007, involving some 40,000 Malaysians, with a cameo involving riot police, copious tear gas and water cannon. The first rally captured the voters' imagination and contributed to the startling general election results the following year.

Prospects of a second mammoth rally have now sparked the usual threats of violence and 'chaos' from the Home Ministry and other Umno functionaries.

Bersih's entirely reasonable demands

Even so, the rally organisers' demands are entirely reasonable. Bersih is simply calling for the institution of certain essential components of any democratic election.

azlanBersih wants the Najib Abdul Razak administration to clean the electoral rolls, reform the postal vote, use indelible ink on voters' hands to prevent fraud, provide free and fair access to the mass media, adopt a minimum of three weeks for the campaign period, strengthen public institutions, curb corruption and end 'dirty politics'.

Bersih's proposal of a peaceful demonstration is equally reasonable. In the past, such worldwide public expressions of political will, conducted peacefully, have conquered public opinion and overhauled bad policy.

This week, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, black and white women and men who sat together in 'whites only' buses and waiting rooms in the Deep South, in order to force the Kennedy administration to enforce new anti-segregation laws. The Freedom Riders were beaten and firebombed by white supremacists, and jailed for up to half a year by the authorities, for their civil disobedience.

Other examples of peaceful demonstrations that eventually changed history include Gandhi's Salt March in India in 1930, Martin Luther King's Million Man March in the United States in 1963, and the Kwangju Uprising in Korea in 1980. Today, we too are bearing witness to the remarkable Arab Spring, a revolution that has opened up new ways of thinking for entire nations.

A brief history of doing time

“I wasn't in the country during the 2007 Bersih rally,” my friend recalled. “But I was at a candlelight vigil aimed at abolishing the ISA, on its half century anniversary.

anti-isa vigil in petaling jaya amcorp mall 5“We were milling around the entrance to the Amcorp Mall, sharing candles, singing Negaraku, and watching the ranks of police build up, well over a hundred of them. A phalanx of riot police used their shields to push us into the mall.

“Uniformed and plainclothes policemen started dragging young men away to the police vans, slapping several of them as they went. Two young Malay men told me later that policemen pushed their faces into the ground, using a knee in the back of their heads. Several young men were moved to the vans with their necks in police chokeholds.

“There were plenty of women wearing tudung or Muslim headscarves among the crowd of protestors, but the police avoided these studiously, perhaps because they would have created bad press. TV crews went around filming those arrested, but the floodlights and the cameras certainly didn't do much to discourage the police from roughing up the protestors.

“One police officer trailed behind some arrested protestors, shouting 'Tutup! Tutup!' He was urging his men to gather around the detainees being dragged away, to try to prevent any misdeeds being captured on film.

anti-isa vigil in petaling jaya amcorp mall 4“We sat in the police vans for an hour. A Bar Council lawyer talked to us through the chicken coop wire, asked for our names, and offered us advice. It was a hot evening, there were more than a dozen of us squeezed into one truck, and one of the other detainees kept swearing and belching beer fumes,” he sighed.

“Eventually the police drove us to the Petaling Jaya police station. We sat in the sweltering dark for another half an hour. Aru (S Arutchelvan, secretary general of Parti Sosialis Malaysia or PSM) and Syed (Ibrahim Syed Noh, chairperson of GMI, the Movement to Abolish the ISA) set the tone. Aru insisted that the police let us off, before we handed over our identity cards.

'Police ran out of handcuffs'

“The police allowed us off the vans one by one, handcuffing each man as he stepped down. But they stopped this after four or five prisoners. They announced they'd run out of handcuffs! They eventually unlocked all the detainees and placed us together on a stage in the station car park.

“We could see people on the walkways a few floors up, on adjacent buildings overlooking the police compound. They were chanting in support, and waving candles. Later we were joined by around 15 arrested women. Finally, we watched the police bring in a few more protestors. They'd been arrested at the entrance to the station, because they'd been demanding our release.

anti-isa vigil in petaling jaya amcorp mall 3“We were a small crowd, about 30 men and women, of mixed races. I sat next to a handful of college kids, Islamic scholars. They were polite, analytical, bright. They'd noticed the police had been rougher on them than on the non-Malays.

“They smiled when they described how the police had told them to bertaubat, or repent, all the while grabbing them around the throat.

“The Islamic students held a light-hearted group discussion with some Chinese detainees on the theology of candlelight vigils. They all agreed that since nobody was praying to anybody while they were holding the candles, there could be no religious objection,” he chuckled.

“One young man, Kechik, who said he was 19, was sitting beside me. He was rubbing his bruised neck where he had been choked. I tried to make some reassuring noises about the Bar Council lawyers trying to get past the police station entrance, and our eventual release on bail.

“He smiled and told me quietly that he knew all this, because this was his fourth or fifth arrest. One of the police guards recognised Kechik and greeted him with a wave.

“We were photographed. The photographer had to keep telling the detainees not to grin into the camera. They kept us there for seven hours, and then they made us go back to the station every few weeks to sign for police bail, as a kind of collective punishment, but in the end, we weren't charged.

“None of the participants in the anti-ISA candlelight vigils in Petaling Jaya, Penang or Kelantan were eventually charged. It is fairly likely the police may have another crack at them on July 9,” said my friend.

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - 'anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia'. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted at

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