2011-08-04 How WikiLeaks Is Helping Change Malaysia

Late last year, Malaysian Opposition Leader Dr Anwar Ibrahim was being labelled "WikiLeaks' first Malaysian victim" after the Sydney Morning Herald released a US cable suggesting he had knowingly "walked into" a sex trap. But the purported evidence quickly dissolved into hearsay when Singapore's intelligences services could not substantiate their allegations of "technical intelligence". A cable released later showed US officials pressuring the Malaysian government to drop the sex charges against Dr Anwar because they had no credibility, either at home or abroad.

Current Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak accuses Anwar Ibrahim of leading a “small group” of malcontents with the purpose of toppling his government. That "group" is a coalition of non-governmental organisations, The Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, more popularly known as "Bersih" (which means "clean" in Malay). Its stated aim is to clean up the electoral system and ensure fair elections in Malaysia.

“It’s not so much about electoral reform," insists the Malaysian PM. "They want to show us as though we’re like the Arab Spring governments in the Middle East.”

The parallels are worth examining, even though Bersih campaigners insist their sole focus is clean elections, not regime overthrow.

The first "illegal" Bersih rally, in November 2007, was dispersed by Malaysian riot police with tear gas and chemical bursts. Thirteen men and two women were arrested. The government ignored continuing demands for electoral change, so a second street demonstration (Bersih 2.0) was organised for 9th July 2011. Despite extraordinary government attempts to block entrance to the capital, Kuala Lumpur, between 10,000 and 50,000 people joined the protest. The police response has been criticized as heavy-handed, with over 1,600 people arrested, including several Bersih leaders. Dr Anwar, taken to hospital after a tear gas attack, was just one among thousands of injured demonstrators. One person died during a scuffle with police, who later denied responsibility.

After the protest, 30 members of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia (Malaysian Socialist Party, or PSM) remained in extended detention, with 24 eventually charged under Societies Act for allegedly possessing and distributing banned protest pamphlets. Another 6 members (the "EO6") were held for 28 days without trial under the draconian Emergency Ordinance (EO) of 1969. They were released after a series of candle-light vigils, some of which police also dispersed with violent tactics.

Protestors turned to social media to tell their stories and maintain the Bersih movement's momentum. The #BersihStories tag became popular on Twitter, with people eager to share their own experiences of the July 9th protest. Police responded by releasing selective videos, encouraging citizens to report on protestors, and charging individuals who made "false reports against the force".

A former US ambassador to Malaysia, John Malott, is one of many outspoken critics of the Malaysian government's heavy-handed Bersih 2.0 crackdown.

“Malaysia is certainly not Libya or Syria or Yemen. Najib is not a Qaddafi. But still, I was surprised to see that Najib is still saying that the Bersih movement is a veiled attempt to topple his administration through street demonstrations, like those that are now claiming Middle Eastern despots,” Malott told the Malaysia Chronicle newspaper.

“Well, if that is Bersih’s goal, then why did Najib act like an Arab Spring government? It’s only a question of degree. The Malaysian police did not use lethal force, but the mentality is the same. Suppress whoever disagrees with you. Maybe you don’t use tanks, but you use water cannon. It’s not bullets, it’s tear gas. But the authoritarian mindset is exactly the same as the leaders of the Arab Spring governments.”

Government defenders dismiss such talk as further evidence of US meddling in Malaysian affairs. They point to a WikiLeaks cable where US officials warn Washington against being seen as too closely allied with Dr Anwar's opposition, lest he be perceived as a US puppet. In another leaked cable, however, a former US ambassador warns that the ruling UMNO party are "willing to blacken Malaysia’s reputation to ensure the end to opposition leader (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim’s political challenge."

“Malaysia has seen Operasi Lalang, it has seen the Sedition Act and ISA used liberally, and more recently it has seen denial of service attacks on the alternative media to keep people from reading what the Government doesn’t want them to know," said Malott, when asked about the potential for a more wide-spread violent crack-down.

“What is the probability of it happening? I don’t know. But if it does happen, then as you said, it will come as a great shock to everyone who has been holding a very different image of Malaysia."

The next General Election could be held as soon as October. PM Najib's ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (National Front), which has been in power since 1957, must now decide whether to keep cracking down hard on Bersih protests, or placate opponents by moving towards more transparent elections.

With allegations by Dr Anwar that overseas votes are being manipulated, and despite Najib's lip service on electoral reform, the signs are not promising.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks has so far released only 37 cables from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, including 13 in the last month. Another 957 cables are apparently yet to be released. The run-up to the next election promises to remain interesting, and the world is watching.


You can can follow the Bersih movement on Twitter using the #Bersih or #Bersih2 hashtags, or see a collection of #BersihStories tweets at: http://bersihstories.org/

Official Bersih Website: http://bersih.org/

Bersih Stories on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bersih-Stories/105957342833919

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