Malaysia: Anti-government march defies repression

Photo: Alex Bainbridge.

The Bersih 5.0 demonstration for clean elections and against corruption in Malaysia made a huge splash on November 19 despite threats of serious repression. The night before the demonstration, at least 10 prominent figures (including key organisers of the rally) were arrested.

The lead-up to Bersih 5.0 was also characterised by threats of violence from the pro-government Red Shirts. Although the Red Shirts are nominally independent, the government clearly turned a blind eye to these threats. Some figures associated with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s regime also promised to march with the Red Shirts.

On the morning of the rally, it became clear that police were going to block the roads to stop the anti-government mobilisations at two different gathering points from converging in the centre of the city. However, large numbers of people eventually made their way to the city centre by various means, where a spirited rally took place.

The numbers were down compared to the previous four  Bersih mobilisations (with estimates ranging up to about 100,000 Bersih “yellow shirts” compared to half a million at Bersih 4.0).

One reason for this is repression, alongside the threats of violence. Another is the fact that the opposition has split since the last Bersih mobilisation, with the Islamic PAS party leaving the opposition bloc.

However, the Bersih crowd was significantly larger than the 6000 Red Shirts estimated to have rallied on the same day.

The other thing that was striking was the sheer number of people clearly supporting Bersih. There were huge parts of the city where people were proudly sporting yellow shirts. Every train station and eating place in the general vicinity of the main mobilisation was full of Bersih supporters.

People were selling Bersih 5.0 T-shirts and other paraphernalia (some officially connected to the Bersih movement and some not) at any thoroughfare they could find.

An exact determination of numbers who marched seems impossible. As far as I could tell, there was no point at which all the Bersih supporters were all gathered at the same place at the same time.

The rally was scheduled to run for eight hours, with people constantly coming and going, and moving to different locations. In this sense, it was much more like a mass movement than any recent development in Australia.

What is clear is that tens of thousands of people displayed their support for the movement, most notably by wearing their yellow shirts and head bands and by joining in the general mobilisation, which despite the threat of violence had the character of a festival.

[Alex Bainbridge is national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance. He was in Malaysia to attend a conference of the Parti Sosialis Malaysia.]

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