Street Protests: Anwar Ibrahim’s Trademark


By Haider Yutim, Malaysian Digest  

The aftershocks of Bersih 2.0 have taken a toll on the Barisan Nasional (BN) government, tottering the pillars of its regime and affecting the general view of Malaysian politics from afar. Street demonstrations/riots have never turned out well for Malaysians. A good number of Malaysians still remember the street riots that cost lots of lives in 1969. The outcome of the recent riot has tarnished Malaysia’s reputation especially with the biased reporting by foreign mainstream media. But this is just the beginning Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar the Young Activist

Anwar Ibrahim is the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia and is currently the de facto leader of Keadilan, the People’s Justice Party. From 1968 to 1971, as a student, Anwar was the president of a Muslim students organization, Persatuan Kebangsaan Pelajar Islam Malaysia (PKPIM). Around the same time, he was also the president of Persatuan Bahasa Melayu Universiti Malaya (PBMUM). He was one of the protem committee of Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) or Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia which was founded in 1971. He was also elected President of the Malaysian Youth Council or Majlis Belia Malaysia (MBM).

In 1974, Anwar was arrested during student protests against rural poverty and hunger. This came as a report surfaced stating that a family died from starvation in a village in Baling, in the state of Kedah, despite the fact that it never happened. He was imprisoned under the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial, and spent 20 months in the Kamunting Detention Center.

In 2008, a gathering of more than 1,000 supporters greeted Anwar in a rally welcoming his return to politics. Police interrupted Anwar after he had addressed the rally for nearly two hours and called for him to stop the gathering since there was no legal permission for the rally.

Anwar Ibrahim and street riots are a potent and unhealthy mix. He is never a good figure for Malaysia. Catastrophes will follow in everything that he touches. He is the Midas of Catastrophe. Riots in 1998 following the sacking of Anwar as Deputy Prime Minister turned violent, with hundreds arrested.

13 Years Later

No one would honestly suggest that cleaning up politics and holding any given government accountable for their actions is not an honorable, noble cause. It is honorable indeed, however, when such a movement takes to the streets but is funded by a foreign power and led by servants of foreign interests, it becomes obvious it has been hijacked in order to exploit the aspirations of a frustrated public for a self-serving agenda.

The first rally, also organized by Bersih, was held in 2007 and saw some 50,000 people take to the capital’s streets. The Bersih marchers/demonstrators eventually dispersed, however, it resulted in chaos when the police deployed teargas and water cannons on the demonstrators. The historic event has been partly credited for Pakatan’s record gains in Election 2008, when the opposition pact swept into power in five states and won 82 parliamentary seats.

It’s understandable then that the Bersih electoral reform group’s plans for an upcoming series of a mass street protests have left citizens and lawmakers nervous. Many are relieved that the group had decided to hold its rally in a stadium, thus minimizing opportunities for violence and property damage, which somehow happens even though the protestors were peaceful. The group, backed by Pakatan had promised to bring tens of thousands onto the streets on the fateful Saturday of July 9 in what could have been Malaysia’s biggest protest since 1998 when Anwar’s sacking triggered violent demonstrations.
Anwar the Attention-Seeker

Anwar has long been synonymous with street riots. The main reason for him to resort to this method is to gain worldwide attention and he doesn’t care what kind of attention he will be getting. To Anwar, street protests are the only avenue available to push for electoral reforms (the main agenda of Bersih 2.0 rally) and so he sees this as a good opportunity to use Bersih’s platform for his own cause. He said this was because the opposition had previously exhausted all other available options to no avail.

“That is the whole interest (of Bersih 2.0), to express in this manner because all other avenues have failed. We have sent memos, (held) series of discussions, protest… Everything has been done, submissions with facts and evidence,” he was quoted telling reporters.
Malaysian Public Pay the Price

The government had declared Bersih as illegal a few days before the scheduled rally, and has warned that anyone wearing yellow will be detained. More than 200 Bersih supporters and organizers were arrested on charges ranging from the promotion of “illegal assembly” to “waging war against the King”. Some were held for an indefinite period without trial.

The rally also prompted authorities to carry out extensive roadblocks which caused standstills in Kuala Lumpur and many businesses had to close. There were also widespread mobile phone and internet disruption.

Meanwhile, thousands of supporters have expressed their views on Facebook and Twitter, with many of them, tweeting directly to the prime minister. However, it could prove difficult to gauge the impact the rally had, in the short term at least, in a country known for its traditionally tame political culture, according to scholar Greg Lopez. Social networks such as Twitter were congested with comments and posts on the rally, including some posters created by those who were initially indifferent to the Bersih 2.0 agenda prior to July 9, but had since decided to support it, rhetorically at least.

Bersih supporters in other parts of the world held similar rallies in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, the US, Canada and the UK.

According to Ooi Kee Beng, a Malaysian analyst based in Singapore’s Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, the demonstration and crackdown might prompt apolitical Malaysians to take a greater interest in public affairs.