BERSIH 3.0 Broke Many Glasses (Including A Few Glass Ceilings) 

by Bakri Musa

In any mass rally you expect a minority to get carried away or be willfully indulging in criminal acts. It is the duty of the authorities to prevent and apprehend them, but not to use that as justification to treat as criminals the vast majority who are otherwise peaceful, or for the police to behave like criminals in responding.

First of Two Parts: Seeing The Bright Side
(Next Week: Part Two: Lessons To Be Learned)
In the aftermath of the largest public demonstrations against the Barisan government, the officials’ obsession now turns to the exercise of apportioning blame and the associated inflicting of vengeance. Both are raw human reactions, but hardly enlightening, sophisticated, or even fruitful. Besides, there is plenty of blame to go around. I prefer to look at the bright side and on the lessons that can be learned.

BERSIH 3.0 clearly demonstrates that Malaysians no longer fear the state. In that regard we are a quantum leap ahead of the Egyptians under Mubarak, the Iraqis under Saddam, or the Chinese under Mao (or even today). When citizens are no longer afraid of the state, many wonderful things would follow. BERSIH is also the first successful multiracial mass movement in Malaysia. In a nation obsessed with and where every facet is defined by race, that is an achievement worthy of note. Another significant milestone, again not widely acknowledged, is that the movement is led by a woman who is neither Malay nor a Muslim. Ambiga Sreenevasan broke not one but three Malaysian glass ceilings!

On a sour note, BERSIH 3.0 revealed that Barisan leaders (and a few from the opposition) have yet to learn and accept the fundamental premise that dissent is an integral part of the democratic process, and expressing it through peaceful assembly a basic human right. At a more mundane level though no less important, the authorities’ performance in BERSIH 3.0 also exposed their woeful incompetence and negligence in basic crowd control.

In any mass rally you expect a minority to get carried away or be willfully indulging in criminal acts. It is the duty of the authorities to prevent and apprehend them, but not to use that as justification to treat as criminals the vast majority who are otherwise peaceful, or for the police to behave like criminals in responding.

To keep things in perspective, and with no intent to insult those injured, whose properties were damaged, and those otherwise inconvenienced, the mayhem last Saturday was no worse than that following an American college championship game. More to the point, considering the vastly much larger crowd and the much more pivotal issues at stake, no lives were lost.

Discerning The Winners and Losers

As with a college championship game, there were definite winners – and champions – from last Saturday’s contest. As for the losers, there were plenty of them too. If you were to appear late on the scene or just a distant observer like me, it would not be terribly difficult to figure out who were the new champions and who were the sore losers just by watching their reactions.

It was a tribute to BERSIH’s leaders that they did not gloat – the hallmark of genuine champions. They remained cool and confidently went on to target their next trophy, the removal of the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Elections Commission for the pair’s blatant political partisanship by being, among others, UMNO members.

Although BERSIH was a coalition of NGOs, it nonetheless welcomed participation from all, including members of political parties. Thus there were generous representations from the opposition as they too shared BERSIH’s objective of clean and fair elections. Again it was a tribute to BERSIH’s enlightened and sophisticated leadership that it welcomed their participation and did not try to control or otherwise censor their speeches and actions. BERSIH leaders respected individual freedom, again reflecting their maturity and sophistication.

As for the political players on either side of the issue, we too could also easily discern the winners and losers among them. KEADILAN’s leader Anwar Ibrahim described the event as a “celebration of unity, an awakening for liberation. [It] … shall go down in the nation’s history as Merdeka Rakyat when 300,000 spoke in one voice to demand a free and fair election. …. [Those who] came down in full force were encouraged by a sense of justice to demand liberation from usurpers. Their message cannot be mistaken – a free country cannot be enslaved anymore.”

He continued, “BERSIH 3.0 represents the hopes and dreams of all Malaysians that the political legitimacy of any government in the future can only be attained through a genuine democratic process.” That is the confident voice of a winner.

Contrast that to the reactions of the Prime Minister, his Deputy Muhyiddin, and Home Minister Hishammuddin. Muhyiddin was first to the draw, threatening to make BERSIH pay for the damages, presumably including those caused by those ubiquitous razor fences, tear gas explosions, and blasting water cannons. For his part, Hishammuddin contemptuously dismissed the smashing of journalists’ cameras as “standard operating procedure,” only to be contradicted later by his Chief of Police. As many later found out, the police smashed more than just cameras.

Najib’s hospital visit to the injured journalist Radzi Razak was a gracious personal touch. However, the heavily-covered media event backfired as it revealed too much. Radzi’s facial expression during Najib’s nearly quarter-of-an-hour monologue where he (Najib) apparently apologized to the injured reporter showed that he (Radzi) was anything but comforted by the Prime Minister’s presence or words. Later Najib blasted the demonstrators for not respecting a court order banning entry into Dataran Merdeka, conveniently forgetting his administration’s contempt for citizens’ right to peaceful assembly. The irony of the venue; Dataran Merdeka – Freedom Square!

In short, the political trio of Najib, Muhyiddin and Hishammuddin behaved like typical losers, consumed with blaming others and seeking vengeance. They were not unlike the three blind mice running around as if BERSIH had cut off their tails. The trio may not be blind but they certainly behaved like three myopic mice, unable to see beyond their whiskers.

Futility of the “Blame Game”

Trying to apportion blame at this stage of the game, even when attempted by well-meaning and neutral observers, is a futile exercise. When done by political hacks, as most surely it would, the exercise would serve only to aggravate old wounds.

When you have dry rubbish strewn all over, cans of gasoline purposely left open, and match boxes recklessly tossed around, the question of who lit the first matchstick becomes irrelevant. There will always be someone who saw somebody else who struck a match earlier. Then the analyses and debates would quickly degenerate into the minutiae of determining the exact seconds or minutes, or interpreting what certain gestures and phrases may or may not mean in the heat of the occasion. Indeed such a puerile exercise is already well underway, and worse, it is being taken seriously by the authorities!

A more useful endeavor would be to learn ways of, metaphorically speaking, getting rid of the dry tinder, the thick brush of mutual suspicions, the open cans of inflammatory slimes, and the readily available matches. Such an exercise would require of Najib, Muhyiddin and Hishammuddin to be other than the three blind mice. Mice, blind and otherwise, thrive in rubbish.

Najib et al. need to look far beyond their whiskers and ponder whether the laying of razor fences at Dataran Merdeka and turning the center of modern peaceful Kuala Lumpur into an Israeli-occupied West Bank, Korea’s Demilitarized Zone, or Stalin’s Gulag is the equivalent of removing open cans of gasoline or merely spewing more fuel. This point was forcefully made by a poster on one razor fence, “Welcome to Tel Aviv!”

There are hundreds if not thousands of such pictures as well as personal accounts of BERSEH 3.0. One touched me immensely. “Up ‘til Friday afternoon I was still unsure about going,” she wrote. “… Then I saw the photos of the police rolling out the barbed wire and I saw red. Since when did our police, or whoever is their boss, roll out barbed wire – barbed wire!! – against their own people?? Are we thugs? Terrorists? Thieves?”

The observer who wrote that is no raging anti-establishment anarchist. On the contrary, Marina Mahathir is a thoughtful commentator, very much mainstream. She saw only the pictures of police laying down those razor fences, and she was incensed. Imagine if she had been strolling down the street and been rudely confronted by that hideous sight? What if she was a foreign tourist?

Ponder the mindset of those who proposed the idea in the first place, or the personnel who laid down those razor fences. Did they think that Malaysians are such unruly hooligans that could only be kept away by those menacing barriers? Or were the authorities gleefully imagining and salivating in anticipation of some innocent citizens being ripped apart by those sharp blades? We judge others through our own image. To our leaders we must be a nation of thieves, thugs, and terrorists because they themselves are.

Najib and others readily referred to the damages done by the demonstrators while conveniently overlooking those incurred by the police, as with the unnecessary road closures long before the event. I wonder how many ambulances and doctors were delayed on their way to the hospital to attend to emergencies before the rally because of the massive road closures. Violence was perpetrated upon the city long before the first demonstrators arrived.

Do not expect much introspection from our leaders; sore losers are incapable of that. They could not for example, fathom that the laying of razor fences, widespread closing of streets, and heavy police presence contributed to the violence. Such an insight escapes them.

Next: Second of Two Parts: Lessons To be Learned