Malaysia: Half a million in BERSIH 4 democracy mobilisation

September 2, 2015
BERSIH activists
BERSIH activists

Malaysian democracy activists estimate that between 300,000 and half a million people peacefully took to the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur for 34 hours from August 29 to 30. This is much larger than the previous mobilisations by the BERSIH (literally meaning “clean”) movement for free and fair elections.

This huge turnout was fuelled by exposure of blatant corruption in the government connected to billions of dollars that disappeared from a government-owned investment fund called 1MDB. This includes approximately $870 million that is alleged to have turned up (through a circuitous route) in the personal account of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has obstructed efforts to investigate it properly.

There were also 74 support actions around the world, the largest outside Malaysia were in Melbourne (5,000), London (2,000), Sydney (1000) and Perth (1000).

Green Left Weekly's Peter Boyle interviewed Sivarajan Arumugam, the general secretary of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM).

What is the PSM's assessment of the BERSIH 4 mobilisation and what role did PSM play in the mobilisation?

The turnout for the BERSIH 4 rally was the largest compared to BERSIH rallies 1, 2 and 3 even though the plan for the rally was announced only a month ago.

In view of the various scandals and misuse of power by the Najib administration, the call for the BERSIH 4 rally was very timely and provided an opportunity for Malaysians to send a clear message to the government that they wanted both PM Najib and the NationalFront (BN) government to be kicked out.

Civil society activists moved in high spirits to mobilise the masses. The PSM organised a road show on August 16, distributing BERSIH 4 leaflets and having talks in several towns .

BERSIH leaders estimated the total turnout to be around 500,000 people. Our own estimate on the ground was there were easily 100,000 to 200,000 people during the peak events on August 29 and 30.

The PSM led the march from Brickfields area of Kuala Lumpur, one of five feeder marches. We had a pickup truck with a powerful sound system. Around 50 PSM members served as marshals to guide the rally participants to Dataran Merdeka [Independence Square].

At least 10,000 people joined us in this feeder march. It certainly was a thrilling experience as we chanted slogans and sang songs throughout the journey. It was also the largest number of people from Brickfields in a BERSIH march.

What was the reaction of the government and the police?

The police and the government knew that they could not stop BERSIH 4. Even though the government continued its propaganda through state radio and TV channels that the rally was illegal, this did not deter Malaysians, who were determined to make a change.

As a last resort the home minister issued a decree on the eve of BERSIH 4 that any printed materials and T-shirts with the words “BERSIH 4” were illegal and those wearing or brandishing it would be prosecuted.

However, the next day, the minister was completely shamed when thousands arrived for the rally in their BERSIH 4 yellow T-shirts. The police were overwhelmed by the turnout and completely withdrew from any action.

Until the end of the 34-hour rally, at midnight August 30, the protest rally was relatively incident-free. The authorities were given no reason or excuse to intervene and disrupt the event.

Rally participants organised themselves into cleaning teams , continuously sweeping the streets, picking up rubbish, separating recyclables. There were well equipped medical teams at various campsites and groups to distribute food and water. Churches in the city provided shower facilities and food to the rally participants.

Is it true that the ethnic composition of BERSIH 4 was significantly different to BERSIH 3, and if so, why?

It can’t be denied that the majority of the rally participants in BERSIH 4 were Malaysian ethnic Chinese compared to the previous mobilisations that had a more ethnically mixed crowd. There was a significant absence of ethnic Malays.

Two reasons can be cited for this phenomenon. First, as the opposition coalition known as People's Alliance disintegrated two months ago, the Islamic party (PAS), which has usually mobilised the most Malays for rallies, did not participate in BERSIH 4. The PAS leadership made it clear to its members that it was not participating in BERSIH 4.

The current PAS party leadership's silent support for the ruling BN has left many of its members confused. After its last party congress, most PAS progressives walked out to form a new party, known as PAN. But these progressives were the minority in PAS and they have yet to recruit more members to their side. So PAN was unable to fill the gap.

Second, Anwar Ibrahim's People's Justice Party (PKR) also seemed to have failed to mobilise its Malay supporters for BERSIH 4. They are caught in a spot as PKR is still unable to divorce itself from PAS in the opposition-run state government of Selangor, which relies on the support of the PAS assembly members to stay in government.

Former PM Mahathir Mohamad made two visits to BERSIH 4. What is PSM's comment on this?

Mahathir is a shrewd politician who knows when to play his cards right. He is on an all-out mission to get rid of Najib, and he is the only person in UMNO [United Malays National Organisation, the dominant party in BN] brave enough to attend the BERSIH 4 rally and to send that message clearly.

Mahathir has no qualms about his own authoritarian record as PM, especially when his position was threatened in 1987 by Tengku Razaleigh and by Anwar Ibrahim in 1998. Now, he sees his last mission is to save UMNO from Najib, as he is convinced that if UMNO falls now, it will not be able to rise again.

The BN government has made threats to prosecute people after BERSIH 4. What are these threats and do you think the government will act on them?

BERSIH steering committee members have already been hauled up for statements by the police. But they will have nothing much to prosecute the leaders over, as it was a successful peaceful rally.

On the other hand, what is more worrying is the government and its bullies are trying very hard to stoke racial sentiment. The large turnout by the ethnic Chinese have given them the ammunition to claim that the BERSIH 4 rally had a “non-Malay agenda” to overthrow Najib and UMNO, who claim to be the “saviours of the Malay race”.

Najib plans to instil fear among the Malay majority in Malaysia's population that if UMNO is overthrown, then Malays would lose all their special rights and will be ruled by economically powerful Chinese Malaysians.

The PSM is more worried about these blatant racial provocations by Najib and his goons.

What was PSM's message to the people turning out for BERSIH 4? And how was this message received?

We stressed that just replacing Najib will not change things as the nation suffers serious structural problems. We need to change the political system that is pro-business and deeply exploitative.

The PSM sees the BERSIH 4 rally was just the beginning for more rallies to come. We highlighted many issues — from environmental problems and eviction of farmers to workers retrenchment happening now in the country — and how we need to take the spirit of BERSIH 4 to all of these struggles until we achieve the downfall of the corrupt authoritarian Najib BN government.

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