Malaysia is bracing for an Arab spring-style stand-off on Saturday, when activists angry at “dirty politics” are expected to rally in Kuala Lumpur despite draconian government efforts to nip the movement in the bud.
Tensions have mounted in this normally staid state, often called “Moderate Malaysia”, after a group of 62 non-governmental organisations known locally as Bersih 2.0 proposed a peaceful protest, dubbed the “Walk for Democracy”, against alleged vote-rigging and other electoral abuses in a recent state election.
But the government last week declared Bersih – which means “clean” in Malay – illegal, and has warned that anyone wearing the yellow colours of protest will be detained. It has already arrested more than 200 supporters and organisers on charges ranging from the promotion of “illegal assembly” to “waging war against the king”. Some are being held for an indefinite period without trial.
Although Malaysia’s next general election is not until 2013, polls could take place as soon as this year – with many speculating that the incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front) may not fare so well.
Headed by the prime minister, Najib Razak, Barisan Nasional has ruled Malaysia since 1955. It suffered a major setback in 2008 when it lost more than one-third of its parliamentary seats to Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance), a coalition of opposition parties.
Despite government accusations that they are actively threatening national security, Bersih’s leaders have been adamant that they are pushing solely for electoral changes.
“We are calling for a government through free and fair elections, not street demonstrations” like in Egypt or Libya, said Bersih’s chairwoman, Ambiga Sreenevasan.
After calling Bersih illegal, the government assented to a rally in a stadium. Opposition groups expect as many as 300,000 supporters to turn out. Police, however, have refused to grant Bersih a permit for the rally – a requirement for any gathering of five or more people – and have said they will work with the army to disperse Saturday’s crowds.
Earlier this week police held a military exercise in which soldiers held up banners reading “Disperse or we will shoot”.
Najib threw his endorsement behind local silat – or martial arts – groups, including one that has openly vowed to “wage war” against Bersih. “If there are evil enemies who want to attack the country from without and within,” Najib said this week, “you, my brothers, will rise to fight them”.
Bersih organisers say they have received death, bomb and gang-rape threats in recent weeks, which they claim police have not investigated.