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Saturday, 5 May 2012

Bersih 3.0: More tests for Malaysian democracy

Bersih 3.0 and its aftermath show deep divisions in our society but many participants deemed it a good day for Malaysian democracy, despite the ugly end.

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, amid accusations of photo manipulation 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 Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah — possibly the most erudite member of the Government — has said, Bersih 3.0 (and its aftermath) show deep divisions in our society.

Big turnout: Thousands of protesters outside Dataran Merdeka last Saturday.

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 protesters 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 3.30pm (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 protesters 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 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 included people who might 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 alleged police aggression that day.

Though the aggression was later attributed to rumours of a policeman being killed by protesters, that these violent instances occurred have 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 among the protesters should also face justice.

> Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is the president of IDEAS.

Related posts:
Bersih 3.0 rally: Malaysia braces for electoral reform protests 
Bersih 3.0: the good, bad and ugly Malaysians 
Malaysian police fire tear gas at more than 25,000 protesters, Bersih 3.0 rally 
More than 20000 Malaysians march for election reforms ...

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