Just as the international community was beginning to buy the packaging of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak as a reformer, and the acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in his second sodomy case as a sign that Malaysia is indeed reforming, authorities violently dispersed the third Bersih rally for electoral reforms in Kuala Lumpur last Saturday. This resulted in a quick condemnation of the Malaysian government by international observers and the world press.
But while Prime Minister Najib, his United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO), and its friends in the Barisan Nasional coalition may have lost some brownie points internationally, it appears that they have gained some political capital domestically. Indeed, analysts are now pointing out that the protesters may have walked into an UMNO trap.
Prior to the planned march, the government’s body language had already betrayed its desire to crack down on the protest given the slightest excuse. Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, for instance, had said that the police would take all necessary measures should protesters insist on marching into the iconic Dataran Merdeka. The government had previously banned the Bersih groups from holding their rally at the Dataran, which ironically translates to ‘Freedom Park’ in English. Bersih leader and Malaysian Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan had pledged to respect the ban, but insisted on bringing the rally as near to the Dataran as possible.
The police did allow the protesters to come near the barricade to the historic square, where the two-hour sit-in protest had been largely peaceful. But just minutes after both Ambiga and opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim declared the rally a success and urged the crowd to peacefully disperse, some protesters tried to break into the barricade. This resulted in the violent dispersal by the police, and the ensuing ruckus that rocked Kuala Lumpur.
As expected, the largely pro-UMNO, government-owned mainstream media highlighted in their reports that the melee was instigated from the line of the protesters. They conveniently ignore the fact that, as international observers point out, the response from the authorities had been largely disproportionate. The UMNO, for its part, lost no time in saying that the ugly turn of events prove that the Bersih rally was less about electoral reforms and more about wrestling control of Putrajaya. These have put the Bersih groups, along with the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition coalition that backed them, on the defensive.
In effect, the violence that characterized the protest actions last Saturday deflected the nation’s attention away from the issue of skewed election regulations that favors the ruling coalition. It has also given the UMNO renewed political ammunition to discredit Bersih’s legitimate grievances, as well as to demonize the PR by accusing it of hi-jacking the Bersih movement and blaming it for the embarrassing rumpus.
It might be too early to say, but it seems that this has been another score for Prime Minister Najib. As I have written three months ago, the Prime Minister clearly knows how to play his game.