709 Rally – Significance and Implications

By Friends of SUARAM (FOS) Working Committee, Johore

Despite all forms of deception, destruction and intimidation and eventually an all-out suppression by the ruling clique of the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional Government, 709 rally cum “walk for democracy”, was successfully held in Kuala Lumpur City Centre, the heartland of Malaysia. It was a remarkable achievement resulting from a high-degree collective wisdom and correct leadership of Bersih 2.0 leaders, coupled with the extremely huge response and courageous participation of the people.

The Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein deployed a large number of fully-armed FRU (riot squads) to block with barbed wire all streets leading to the Merdeka Stadium. Thousands of police were instructed to arrest people, and to disperse any public gathering of people. Only a few thousand demonstrators managed to break through the barricades and successfully entered the area surrounding Merdeka Stadium.

Since a peaceful assembly could not be held in the historic and ideal venue chosen by Bersih leaders, more than 50,000 disgruntled participants had no alternative but to take to the streets.

Bersihl eaders, including Ambiga and others, in defiance of the restriction order issued by the Court, entered Kuala Lumpur City Centre, braving the possibility of being prevented from entry, or of being arrested. They were eventually stopped and arrested on the way to attend the rally.

The “memorandum of 8-point demand for electoral reform” could not be submitted to Agong on that day as a result of the brutal suppression by Barisan Nasional government headed by Najib, Bersih 2.0 had no choice but to appoint another date to submit the memorandum to Agong.

709 rally cum “walk for democracy” was unexpectedly turned into a public demonstration that boosted popular morale. It signified a strong demand for reform of the parliamentary election system as well as for political democracy, after a period of 54 years since Independence. It reflected the unity and co-operation among all ethnic communities, particularly the 3 major communities (Chinese, Malay and Indian).

The rally can be interpreted as a severe criticism levelled at the racist blackmail and attack launched by hegemonistic UMNO ruling clique.It took place simply because of UMNO-dominated BN ruling clique stubbornly brushing aside Bersih 2.0’s “8-point demand” for electoral reform, which is justified, legitimate and appropriate.

The situation was aggravated by Najib going back on his own word, disallowing the rally to be held in Merdeka Stadium. Instead, he gave the green light to the police to resort to brutal repression of those taking part in the rally, including the Bersih leaders.

The “709 Bersih rally” can be aptly described as a popular movement of the three ethnic communities launched for the purpose of achieving electoral reform for clean and fair elections.

It was a mass struggle unprecedented in the history of Malaysia. The occurrence of this historic event followed by its development is of great significance and of far-reaching implications for democracy and human rights movement in Malaysia. The implications are as follows:-

1. The people realised the unreasonable and deceptive nature of the“rules of the game” of parliamentary elections.

The “709 Bersih rally” has brought to light the following points:

(1) The past 54 years of practical experience in parliamentary elections since Independence, has taught the broad masses that the “rules of the game” (i.e. election rules, election system and procedures) designed by the British government, and implemented by the UMNO-dominated Alliance and the present Barisan Nasional government are unreasonable and deceptive in nature.

(2) The people, through their personal experience in life, have realised that the continuing existence and implementation of the “rules of the game” of parliamentary elections, favouring the ruling clique of the day, would never bring about a popularly-elected government, genuinely representing and protecting the interests of the people.

(3) The broad masses have, through the past 54 years of untold suffering, realised that the UMNO hegemonistic ruling clique is the root cause of all racial discrimination, corruption, abuse of power, polarization of wealth and poverty, and social disharmony. The BN component parties (MCA, Gerakan, SUPP and MIC especially) are merely accomplices and lackeys of UMNO’s ruling clique. They are working hand in glove against the people;

(4) A large proportion of the populace have also realized that, in order to have a better life, the UMNO hegemonistic ruling clique which has ruled our country for 54 long years, must at an opportune time be booted out of the political arena.

2. Daring to put up popular struggle is the answer to the UMNO’s racist blackmail

It is common knowledge that the BN ruling clique never fails to engage in political blackmail with racist overtones (resorting to lame excuses to intimidate the people ) whenever the Rakyat rise on any occasion to demand justice.

In September 2000, after being pressured by Suqiu (the electoral demands made by the Chinese community touching on various national issues). The then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir decided to settle accounts with the Suqiu Committee not long after the General Election. He summoned leaders of the Suqiu Committee headed by Mr Kuek Hian Hiang of Dong Jiao Zong (the United Chinese School Committees’ & Teachers’ Associations) to his office. He administered threats to them, pressurizing them to back down on their demands.

Meanwhile, MCA and Gerakan leaders coaxed and threatened the leaders of the Suqiu Committee and other Chinese community leaders into setting aside their demands, or risked facing racial backlash.

At the same time, the UMNO Youth was stirring up racial sentiments by vowing “to burn down the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall”and shouting slogans like “the Chinese Malaysians go back to China”, etc. The UMNO ruling clique headed by Dr. Mahathir practised “white terror” by way of clamouring that “Suqiu has infringed upon the Malay special privileges” and “Suqiu has caused social unrest”. By resorting to such “white terror”, the government succeeded in thwarting the Suqiu movement.

In 1987, the current Prime Minister Najib was the UMNOYouth chief cum Minister for Culture, Youth and Sports. 1987 was the year when the government created a political turmoil when it assigned non-mandarin speaking school administrators to Chinese schools.

Najib, in his capacity as the UMNO Youth chief, convened a 10,000-strong rally. A banner bearing the slogan “to soak the Malay keris in Chinese blood” (“Basahkan Keris Dengan Darah Cina”) was conspicuously displayed in the rally. In the same rally, Najib delivered a speech highly charged with racist sentiments while waving a keris in his hand.

He has now denied having uttered such seditious words as “to soak the Malay keris in Chinese blood” after assuming the post of prime minister (refer to the Chinese news reported by Merdeka Review at http://www.merdekareview.com/news.php?n=9969). But when Bersih 2.0 announced its intention to hold the 709 rally at the Merdeka Stadium, Najib openly supported Melaka chief minister Ali Rustam in mobilizing members of the Malay martial art organization known as PESAKA (Malaysian National Federation of Silat) to take part in the so-called “patriot” rally led by UMNOYouth on 9 July, allegedly to protect the National Palace. Ali Rustam claimed that PESAKA had a total membership of 4000,000.

Najib utilized the state machinery (mainly institutions resorting to violence and mass media owned or manipulated by the government) and the racist organization PERKASA to unleash an atmosphere of “white terror” against the people of various communities, in an attempt to frighten them into distancing themselves from the Bersih movement. But such sinister plot failed miserably.

The success of Bersih 2.0 rally goes to show that daring to put up popular struggle is the answer to the UMNO’s racist blackmail. In the face of the determined action taken by Bersih leaders and the participants of the rally, the racist political blackmail of the UMNO ruling clique has met with total failure.

3. 709 Bersih rally fostered greater awareness as well as unity and cooperation among all ethnic communities

709 Bersih rally has been the biggest popular struggle for human rights and democracy in Malaysia for the past 54 years since Independence. It was estimated that more than 50,000 people from various ethnic groups participated in the rally (mainly the three major ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians – and other minority groups like Ibans and Kadazans). They were believers of different faiths (largely Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, etc.) and were from all walks of life (workers, farmers, petty traders, professionals, businessmen, academics, artists, political parties, retirees, etc.).

The huge crowd of people from different directions, and from all nooks and corners, converged towards the direction of Merdeka Stadium in a peaceful and orderly manner. They were chanting “Hidup Bersih! Hidup Reformasi! HidupRakyat!”, expressing their strong desire for reforms. Some of them were seen wearing yellow Bersih T-shirts; some had yellow Bersih 2.0 head banners; while some others were waving national flags. No one was carrying any offensive weapon and such like. Banners which were normally displayed in rallies, but they could hardly be seen in 709 Bersih rally.

Those who took part in the peaceful march were however demonized by the UMNO ruling clique as a mob out to create commotions. They were crudely handled with violence by fully-armed anti-riot squads. Tear gas canisters and chemical-laced water cannons were used against them.

In the crackdown, a total of 1,667 persons, including the Bersih chairperson Ambiga and several opposition leaders, were arrested, making the number of arrests a record high in history. The mass arrests drew public criticisms from all quarters. Because of that, the police were forced to release all the detainees within a day. It was indeed an embarrassment to the police force.

It is to be noted that an overdose of tear gas released by the police resulted in the collapse and death of Baharuddin Ahmad, a participant of the rally. The anti-riot squad fired tear gas canisters and water cannons into the compounds of Tung Shin Hospital and Chinese Maternity Hospital. The police action was merely for the sake of giving chase to the participants who sought refuge in the hospitals.

The anti-riot squad totally disregarded the safety of the patients, pregnant women as well as babies in the hospitals. Such repressive actions were immediately severely condemned by the public, and there was heated public discourse on the Internet.

To allay public discontent, health minister Liow Tiong Lai convened a media conference with directors of Tung Shin Hospital. He declared that “Tung Shin Hospital and patients did not suffer any injury or damage”. That was a futile attempt to justify the government’s crackdown. The health minister even went to the extent of claiming that “the police were merely sending the injured to the hospital”. He went further to argue that “there would not have been such untoward incident if there were no Bersih rally”. All these allegations are sheer nonsense!

The truth always prevails. 11 doctors (some of them were from the two hospitals concerned) issued a joint statement founded upon their personal experiences in the rally, served to rebut Liow’s false allegations. Numerous articles and photos depicting police brutality were uploaded on the Net. All this constitutes irrebuttable evidence of the repressive actions taken by the government and the police force.

The spirit of being fellow Malaysians prevailed in the rally. In the face of violent crackdown, participants of the rally rendered assistance and support to each other, regardless of ethnicity. They marched towards the common goal. It was an invaluable experience and educational process for the Rakyat. It laid the spiritual and material foundation for the struggle on a larger scale for human rights and democracy in the future.

Therefore, 709 Bersih rally is of far-reaching implications favourable to the inter-racial unity and cooperation among thevarious communities. This is undeniable.

4. 709 Bersih rally shows NGOs the right direction tomarch forward

The launching of “709 Bersih rally” cum “Walk for Democracy” eventually developed into a widespread “709 Public Demonstration”. The Bersih chairperson Ambiga and its steering committee have demonstrated theiroutstanding leadership.

They won the full confidence and the overwhelming support of the Rakyat. This led to the success of the rally, making it possible for us to move a step forward towards democracy in this country. Ambiga showed her exceptional quality of perseverance and courage in leading Bersih 2.0. She proved herself a shining exemplary leader in civil society.

Bersih 2.0 is a coalition of 62 legitimate NGOs (also known as “civil society”). It strives for clean and fair elections. Bersih 2.0 is neither a political party nor a subsidiary of any political party. Bersih 2.0 is to carry on with its struggle for clean and fair elections. It does not exist for the purpose of winning seats in legislative assemblies or seizing power on behalf of any political party.

Thus, it is neither subjugated to any political party nor taking orders from any political party. Bersih 2.0 leaders will only act in the interests of the Rakyat, relying on the consensus among civil society groups, and on the final policy decision of the steering committee. Bersih will maintain its independence and autonomy as an NGO coalition.

The non-partisan stand adopted by Bersih 2.0 while acting in the interests of the people, was well-received by the people, irrespective of ethnicity, class and religion, and it was also welcomed by various political parties. Bersih 2.0 rally was subsequently turned into a “709 Public Demonstration”. This is because the position taken by Bersih 2.0 was in accord with the aspirations and interests of the people regardless of ethnicity, class or creed. It also gained the support of various political parties.

In brief, a number of factors contributed to the success of Bersih 2.0 rally, and therefore, the fruit of success ought to be shared and enjoyed by all and sundry.

Without doubt, Bersih 2.0 has clearly defined its position, that is, to fight for “clean and fair elections”.

PSM (Malaysian Socialist Party) launched a 3-day political publicity campaign (from 24 to 26 June) on “Udahlah tu—-Bersaralah! BN”. The home ministry tried to equate such publicity campaign with Bersih 2.0’s electoral reform movement. This was obviously a mischievous attempt on the part of the government to confuse the people, designed to create a wrong impression that Bersih 2.0, like PSM, was calling for “the immediate overthrow of the BN government”.

The home ministry, through the police, invoked the Emergency Ordinance to detain MP Dr. Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj and 5 others, accusing them of “waging war against Yang Di-Pertuan Agong” and “reviving communism”, simply because of the red T-shirts bearing portraits of MCP leaders (i.e. Chin Peng and Abdullah CD) found in their bus. The whole episode is ridiculous to the extreme!

The undeniable fact is: On 4 March 2005, Chin Peng,the leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) had, in his “10-point statement”, said: “we have taken the oath of allegiance and loyalty to Yang DiPertuan Agong” “we have agreed to give up violence and armed struggle and everything”. Prior to this, in 1989, MCP had laid down arms, destroyed all weapons, disbanded its armed forces, and signed the “Haadyai Peace Accord” jointly with the Malaysian government.

The detention of Dr Jeyakumar and 5 other members is no doubt a heavy blow to PSM. To some extent, it has tarnished the image of Bersih 2.0. It is detrimental to Bersih’s call for electoral reform.

“Bersih! Bersih! Hidup Bersih!” was the unanimous slogans chanted throughout the Bersih 2.0 rally on July 9, where no flag or slogan of any political party was seen. The slogans used reflected the common aspirations of the Rakyat for clean and fair elections.

Rakyat have given a thumbs-up to the Bersih 2.0 rally. The Bersih 2.0 rally is a mature and successful public demonstration. To sum up, 709 rally has no doubt far-reaching implications conducive to the healthy development of civil society in this country.