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Friday, July 8, 2011

Running Scared in Malaysia

The Malaysian government has pulled out all the stops to prevent an opposition rally this weekend. This week, army units conducted crowd control exercises with banners that said, "Disperse or we will shoot!" The police set up roadblocks and arrested Malaysians simply for wearing yellow T-shirts, the signature color of Bersih, a coalition of 62 nongovernmental organizations that demands changes in Malaysia's electoral system. To date, the police have arrested over 250 supporters of Bersih, claiming that they are "waging war against the king."

Then something unprecedented happened. Malaysia's King Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, allegedly the target of Bersih's campaign, intervened. He called on both Prime Minister Najib Razak and Bersih to resolve their differences in a spirit of harmony and cooperation, for the good of the nation.

There was a collective sigh of relief in Malaysia. The leader of Bersih, Ambiga Sreenevasan, an attorney and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, met with the king and announced that the "Walk for Democracy," as it was called, was cancelled. She said that she was ready to meet with the government to discuss Bersih's concerns about electoral fairness. Prime Minister Najib then offered an olive branch, saying, "We are willing to provide a stadium for them to rally in … from morning until night," an offer that Ms. Ambiga and Bersih immediately accepted.

Then Mr. Najib backed off. His government says that because Bersih is still illegal, it cannot apply for a permit. It also has banned Bersih's leadership from entering Kuala Lumpur on the day of the rally. On Thursday, he joined a gathering of martial artists who said that their 50,000 members will "wage war" against Bersih. Donning their militant uniform, Mr. Najib said, "If there are evil enemies who want to attack the country from within, you, my brothers, will rise to fight them."

Mr. Najib has undermined the authority of the king, who gave Bersih and its concerns credence by meeting with its leadership and calling for a negotiated solution. The political situation in Malaysia is a fast-moving target, and each day brings new developments. Ms. Ambiga and Bersih now say that because of Mr. Najib's actions, they will go ahead with their assembly, no matter what.

Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. Bersih's main issue is not freedom of assembly but the fairness of Malaysia's democratic process. Bersih's backers ask how anyone can be opposed to free and fair elections.

It's an easy question to answer. The United Malays National Organization, of which Mr. Najib is president, is the longest continuing ruling party in the world, and it is running scared.

Continue reading - WSJ - Running Scared in Malaysia

Malaysian Opposition Digs In

Election reform advocates said Thursday they would proceed with a rally in a stadium here on Saturday, despite warnings from the authorities that such a gathering would be illegal.

Tensions have risen in this Southeast Asia nation in recent weeks, with the police arresting more than 200 people in connection with the planned rally, which is being organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, also known as Bersih, or “clean” in Malay. The coalition is made up of 62 nongovernmental organizations.

Opposition leaders, who strongly support the campaign for electoral changes, have predicted that the rally could attract about 300,000 people.

A street rally calling for similar changes in 2007, in which the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters, was credited with helping the opposition make historic gains in the 2008 elections. The next election must be held by mid-2013, but there is speculation it could be held as early as this year.

Last Saturday, the government declared Bersih illegal, because it had not registered as an organization and was causing unrest among the public. Bersih countered that it was not a new organization, but rather an alliance of existing groups. Prime Minister Najib Razak then said the coalition could hold the rally, if it agreed to meet in a stadium, rather than on the streets as first planned.

After a rare mediation meeting Tuesday with the Malaysian king, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, Bersih organizers agreed to these terms. Now, however, the authorities have said that Bersih cannot proceed without a police permit, which normally would not be granted to a group that has been declared illegal.

Bersih leaders responded by accusing the prime minister of having “reneged” on his offer to provide a stadium for their rally and said they would assemble at Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday afternoon “whatever happens between now and then.”

“We are coming, we will be peaceful and together, we will build a better Malaysia,” the coalition said in a statement.

Continue reading - NY Times - Malaysian Opposition Digs In

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