BERSIH 5: LESSONS IN CITIZEN’S MOBILIZATION
FOR INSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRATIC REFORM IN MALAYSIA
PROHAM hosted a post Bersih5 discussion on Friday Nov 25, 2016 to draw lessons from the Nov 19, 2016 mass citizen’s movement for institutional reform. Prior to Bersih5 PROHAM on Nov 17, 2016 did also host a pre Bersih event discussion and had issued a statement of the findings entitled “Fostering a better Malaysia through peaceful citizen’s action”
The objective of the post Bersih5 event panel discussion was to draw lessons. The objective was to take a step back and reflect on the events and happening of Nov 19, 2016, draw some reflections and policy implications for citizen’s action. It is hoped that this exercise will further empower citizen’s action for institutional reform, good governance and enhance parliamentary democracy in Malaysian society.
This discussion among stakeholders is based on the premise of fundamental liberties as enshrined in the Federal Constitution (Article 10) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 20).
The panel speakers were Datuk Kuthubul (PROHAM Chair), Ms Firdaus Husni,(Bar Council), Mr Rama Ramanthan (Bersih Representative) & Dr Khor Ying Hooi (University Malaya/ Proham volunteer). The panel was moderated by Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria (Proham Secretary General).
Arising out of the presentations and discussions are ten key discussion pointers which is documented below for further study and deliberations:-
1 Bersih enlarged its outreach from urban to include the rural & global dimension.
It was noted that Bersih5 launched its biggest simultaneous nationwide roadshow called “The BERSIH 5 Convoy” which took place over seven weeks and converged to Kuala Lumpur, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu for the rally on 19th November. The objective of the BERSIH 5 Convoy was to undertake a national conversation and awareness raising on BERSIH 5’s demands for institutional reforms and the severity of the 1MDB crisis. The Convoy was estimated to cover 246 cities, towns, and villages across Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah, and Sarawak. It was also noted that Bersih5 has a strong global dimension as events were held in 57 countries.
Locally in Malaysia, Bersih5 is stilled viewed as an urban concern and not really impacting rural people and voters. The urban concerns for good governances is contrasted with the rural and semi-rural concerns for socio-economic development. This could continue to be a major hurdle to reach the rural base and therefore Bersih must strive to address these concerns too.
2 Police role – Mixed citizen reactions: Professional but high handed
It was also noted that ground level Police acted very professional in relating to the peaceful demonstrators both during the Bersih5 nationwide convoy as well as in their role on Nov 19, 2016. A number of stories were told of conversations with Policemen on the ground. However there was much criticism on high level Police in the way they handled Bersih5 and constant reference to Bersih5 as an illegal gathering, inability to distinguish peaceful protest movement and that of the counter Bersih5 movement which used threats, hate speech and intimidation.
The pre Bersih5 warnings, the massive road closures and barricades on the actual day of march can be constructed as preventing peaceful demonstrators from undertaking a peaceful march. While Police justified the barricades as a safety measure and preventing the yellow shirts from the red shirts, such action prevented peaceful march from the designated locations towards city centre.
It was also felt that the Police should have used Public Assembly Act (2012), Section 18 to ensure that the counter Bersih5 group hold their rally on another day rather than also be allowed on the same day and time. These actions were not in the spirit of fundamental liberties of the citizens’ right to peaceful assembly.
3 Police crackdown, raid & arrest.
The Police justification for pre Bersih raid of the office and confiscation of computers and equipments was on the grounds to facilitate further investigation. Doing this at the eve of the Bersih5 rally is viewed negatively as seeking to curtail and paralyse operations. Furthermore it was expressed that such actions by the authorities impact organisers negatively in managing the actual event peacefully.
It was felt the arrest of many politicians had no direct relevance to Bersih5, as the movement was primarily a civil society action. Such arrest were viewed as strategies to instil fear and give a psychological perception that a massive crack down could take place on Nov 19, 2016
4 Arrest of Ms Maria Chin under SOSMA and the link to CIA
It was strongly felt that the detention of the Bersih Chairperson under the SOSMA provisions (Security Offences-Special measures Act 2012) was totally unjustified. Ms Maria Chin and the Bersih team have consistently expounded a peaceful demonstration as citizen’s action for institutional reform. The accusation that she was part of a terrorist movement to undermine parliamentary democracy was felt to be unjustifiable and the use of SOMSA was an abuse by powers of the special provisions. It was also felt that the authorities had deviated from the promises made that this law will not be abused. Furthermore SOSMA clearly states in clause 4 (3) “No person shall be arrested and detained under this section solely for his political belief or political activity”.
The arrest of Maria has now prolonged citizen’s action with daily vigils and ongoing daily ‘sit- in’ by citizens groups calling to free Maria and abolish SOSMA campaign. There is also an online petition initiative by five regional and international CSOs in freeing Maria.
Some felt that the Habeas Corpus date by the courts should be sooner rather than later, however next Tuesday in court would be the focus of attention since the arrest of Maria
5 Receiving foreign funding for CSO activities
It was also expressed that receiving funding from any source is not unlawful. CSOs have been receiving grants for specific purposes from both local and foreign funders which were used for research, awareness campaigns, capacity building and socio-economic activities. Therefore a detained review of accounts and how funds have been utilised is necessary before any public statements made inferring wrong doing or implied funding for unlawful political activities. Such statements by authorities and government officials gives a misguided public information with negative impacts of the worthy objective of the movement.
6 Bersih 5 Security Team
The security team or the purple team of about 1,200 volunteers was commended for their dedication and hard work in playing a major role in crowd control as well as ensuring none of the Bersih5 demonstrators broke the barricades. They played an effective complementary role in marshalling the peaceful protestors and also keep an eye on potential ‘agent provocateurs’. On the whole, the Nov19, 2016 event shows that Malaysians are now ready for peaceful assemblies. It was noted that Police could play an effective role in training this voluntary group to ensure safety during peaceful rallies.
7 Size of the Bersih5 crowds
There are different estimates from 10,000 to 15,500 to 40,000. Some have indicated that the smaller size indicates a failure of Bersih5. However it was felt that the Police action had affected it especially the early warning including the prohibition of civil servants and university students from participating. The final meeting point location was a definite issue. The original location was Dataran Merdeka but due to the heavy blockades and road closure, the Bersih5 finally gathered at. KLCC location. It was however pointed out that compared to Bersih4, the Nov 19, 2016 event was very multi-racial. This is a very positive development.
There were comments by certain individuals that Bersih5 saw the mobilization of Chinese evangelical Christians to the streets. Church officials had issued statements that it was unfair to single out one religious groups as Malaysians of all religious communities participated as Malaysian citizens.
8 Politicians, political parties & Bersih5
The visible presence of opposition politicians at this and previous Bersih is a reality. Bersih confirmed that they are Apolitical and invite all politicians sharing their campaign goals to join them. Therefore opposition led leaders are open to participate as compared to government related parties.
A lasting memory and picture image of Bersih5 is Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad. To see him in a yellow t-shirt and also sitting by the road is an unforgettable picture. The changing political landscape and the presence of key former UMNO leaders in Bersih5 is one major scene of Bersih5. Questions are raised over the impartiality of Bersih and the influence of certain political parties or their exploitation of the open space.
9 Electoral reform agenda
A question was raised on Bersih’s original objective of establishing a free & fair electoral system and if the campaign had deviated from its original objectives. It was noted the inter-related nature of the governance concerns based on the five Bersih5 demands. It was noted that an independent Election Commission including the appointments by an independent and impartial panel was of utmost importance. This is an ongoing reform agenda
10 Citizen’s action & rise of authoritarian state
Questions were raised over what have been achieved over the five Bersih street demonstrations, if it was an effective method and if other options should be the focus of future Besih actions. It was affirmed that peaceful assemblies are a legitimate civil action and a fundamental right. That the Police need to respect and facilitate this rather than place obstacles. Concerns were raised on the rise of state action in Malaysia in curtailing fundamental liberties in the pretext of public security and safety.
In this context it was reiterated that citizen’s action has enlarged the space for citizen’s advocacy for good governance. It has also impacted and changed Police action over the five Bersih events from excessive use of force to road blocks and blockades in restricting citizen’s peaceful movements. Although it is not an ideal democratic environment nonetheless citizen’s action must push the envelope towards greater compliance to the Federal Constitution (article 10) and UDHR (article 20).
Issued on behalf of PROHAM by Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria (PROHAM Secretary-General).
Nov 27, 2016