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Malaysians in yellow demand electoral reform

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As the 12th General Elections draws near, 40,000 Malaysians dressed in yellow took to the streets demanding electoral reform. The peaceful rally was disrupted by police violence that was praised by the government for taking strict measures on the participants.
On Saturday 10 November, streets in downtown Kuala Lumpur were soaked with heavy rain and 40,000 yellow-clad marchers – symbolising the colour of the monarchy – marched towards the Royal Palace to deliver a memorandum requesting the King’s intervention for electoral reforms. The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH), a coalition of over 70 civil society groups and political parties, including Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), held a march despite having been denied a police permit. Earlier, the government ordered police to block entrance to the capital city Kuala Lumpur to join the demonstration.

Police responded by using water-cannons and tear gas to disrupt the march that had grew in numbers by 3 pm. According to SUARAM, the police also used force to disperse retreating demonstrators despite their orderly and peaceful march. In the last account, police had arrested 40 people on charges for participating in an unlawful act but later bailed out pending the report by the police. According to SUARAM’s Executive Director Yap Swee Seng, the authority was “trying to portray an image of the gathering being unruly and chaotic and that’s why they had to arrest 245 people, which is not true at all”. The group, the majority of which experienced the 1998 political crisis, played a cat-and-mouse game avoiding authorities that tried to block all access to the capital city. Four groups were gathered rather strategically at Masjid Jamek, Masjid India, Sogo Mall and Central Market before converging on a bridge heading towards the Royal Palace about 1.5 kilometres from the central point.

Since the last General Election in 2004, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) claimed it received a two-third majority, elected through free and fair elections. However, election observers refuted the claim as proof that Barisan Nasional is still a popular force. Phantom voters, indelible ink, money politics and even threats remain the issues regarding the conduct of the ruling party’s apparatus (including the Election Commission, media, authority and religious institutions). On the other hand, the opposition’s access to state-owned media for campaigns advertisement is discriminated against and limited.

Witness accounts indicated that the police used force to disperse demonstrators using batons and shields before throwing them to the ground. According to another witness, an old woman in a wheelchair was halted by the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) – an outlaw enforcement unit with a record of brutality. By 4 p.m., a memorandum was handed to the King’s private secretary at the gate by a delegation led by the People’s Justice Party de facto leader, Anwar Ibrahim, before the crowd dispersed peacefully.

Although the event reached international audiences for its peaceful manner, it received only minimal coverage in the nation’s mainstream press and broadcast media.  The following day two state-owned newspapers, Utusan Malaysia and The News Straits Times, cited 4,000 demonstrators, ten times smaller than international media’s observation. Instead of giving political views on the rally to the foreign media, Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, lashed out at the opposition, calling them “pondan” (wimps).

Earlier, the government tried to dissuade people from joining the rally by issuing news bulletins over the past few months about the Batu Buruk Riot in September to threaten the population on the consequences of joining demonstrations. The incident took place when the police refused to grant a permit for a public forum organised by BERSIH, an opposition political party in the coastal town of Terengganu. In the scuffle, two men sustained gunshot wounds to the chest and neck respectively.

According to a local newspaper report, Kuala Lumpur CID chief Ku Chin Wah said 192 individuals had been detained while trying to enter the city a day before the march. The report adds that seven buses from the east coast were stopped after police found rally-related paraphernalia such as yellow t-shirts, bandanas and posters. When contacted, Ku said the police took action against the 192 under Section 105 of the Criminal Procedure Code, which allows arrest to prevent ‘seizable offences’.

One of the lawyers assigned by Malaysian Bar Council to monitor the rally said the move by the police of turning away vehicles coming into the capital is a violation of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of movement. Another rally organiser, Syed Azman Syed Nawawi urged Malaysians to wear yellow every Saturday in a protest against the government, after seeing a successful turn up, without unlawful incidences from the marchers.

According to BERSIH, Malaysia is still incapable of conducting free and fair elections even after 50 years of independence. The chronic electoral situation is not only felt by civil society groups, political parties and foreign observes, but was even admitted to by the Chairman of the Elections Commission himself after the 2004 General Election, that were marred by an unprecedented degree of irregularities and controversies.

In the memorandum to the King, the group demanded his intervention in light of the upcoming 12th General Election tipped to take place early 2008. Among issues stipulated in the memorandum are 1) a complete review of the electoral roll; 2) use of indelible ink; 3) fair access to state-owned media; and 4) the abolition of postal voting to certain sectors of voters.

FORUM-ASIA, as a regional human rights organisation, urged the good office of Malaysian government to conduct impartial and independent investigation into use of force against the peaceful march.

BERSIH also insisted the initiative to call for national electoral reform should not be seen as advocating something that will benefit only the opposition parties, but rather as a vital measure to restore and safeguard the rights of all Malaysian voters and political parties. The coalition also emphasised to ensure that the duly elected government will enjoy full legitimacy and due respect at home and in the global arena.