2007 Bersih rally

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Rallying crowd in front of the Istana Negara.

The 2007 Bersih Rally was a rally held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on November 10, 2007. The aim of this walk was to campaign for electoral reform. It was precipitated by allegations of corruption and discrepancies in the Malaysian election system that heavily favor the ruling political party, Barisan Nasional, which has been in power since Malaysia achieved its independence in 1957.

Much of the publicity for the rally was distributed through online media and blogs. Initially, the organisers planned to have a gathering point at Dataran Merdeka square. However, it was later revealed that this was a red herring to distract the police. The locations of the four gathering points were only released the day before the protests by word of mouth, mobile phones and emails.[citation needed]

Consequently, the rally began with gatherings of people at four locations: Sogo department store, Masjid India, Masjid Negara and Pasar Seni. These four groups of people combined into a single group on their march towards the palace gates to hand over a memorandum to the King demanding electoral reform.[1] Early estimates put the number of attendees between 10,000 to 40,000.[2] Plans called for 100,000 people to join in the rally, and there are claims that this number was indeed achieved, as the many early estimates failed to include those who simultaneously gathered at different locations and those that were barred by police from continuing the walk.

The title of the rally is derived from the name of the organizers, BERSIH (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections).[3] The word "bersih" means clean in Malay.

Bersih demands[edit]

The demands made by Bersih were:[4]

  • Usage of Indelible Ink (which has already been agreed to by the Electoral Commission, but later scrapped)
  • Clean-up of Registered Voters Roll
  • Abolition of Postal Votes, and
  • Access to the government-controlled print and broadcast media for opposition parties.

These demands were incorporated into the Memorandum for submission to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

Preparations[edit]

Organiser's preparations[edit]

Initially, organisers decided on 2 locations for rally participants to gather before marching on to the Istana Negara: Masjid Negara and Dataran Merdeka, two of the most significant landmarks in Kuala Lumpur. However, the day before the rallies were due, the organisers decided to change the locations to Sogo department store, Masjid India, Masjid Negara and Pasar Seni, in an attempt to divert riot police's attention. Furthermore, a decoy of 500 people were sent to Dataran Merdeka to 'attempt' to get into the square.

Government preparations[edit]

The police form a human line near the National Palace.

In the days leading up to the rally, the government warned Malaysians not to take part in the rally as an official permit had not been granted. Citizens were warned that anyone who turned up and participate in the rally would be immediately arrested, because the rally is deemed as illegal since the current Malaysian law bans public gatherings of more than five persons without a permit. However, it should be noted that in July last year, a police permit has released for Umno Youth to hold a protest to demand that the US and Israel end the violence in the Middle East, while US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Kuala Lumpur for a meeting with Asean leaders.

Local television channels, controlled by the ruling party, continually showed video footage of violent protests from other countries, complemented by the tagline "Demonstration always ends in violence." The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdullah Badawi, was quoted saying "Saya pantang dicabar" (translation: I will not be challenged). He urged Malaysians to use elections to give their feedback.[5] He had vowed to crack down on the rally and gave his permission to the police to break up the rally and possibly arrest its participants.[6]

Responses[edit]

Police's response[edit]

The riot police units were placed at various places around Kuala Lumpur. A unit was on active duty at the Masjid Negara.

Hours before the rally was due to occur, thousands of police were stationed around Merdeka Square, and traffic coming into Kuala Lumpur had to pass through numerous security checkpoints, some saying checkpoints began at Pagoh, Johor and Kemaman, Terrengganu.[7] This created widespread traffic congestion throughout the entire Klang Valley area. Although it was claimed by the government that the actual rally was the cause of the jam, other sources contradicted this, stating that the numerous barricades and roadblocks set up by police officers were the direct source of the congestion.[8]

Authorities also made changes to the train schedule in an attempt to make it more difficult for people to reach the rally area. Trains on the Kelana Jaya LRT line coming into the city from Kelana Jaya, which normally stop at Pasar Seni and Masjid Jamek, instead bypassed those stations, going from KL Sentral directly to Dang Wangi Station. Passengers were not given any warning of this and many did not realize they would not be able to stop at these stations until the train was already on its way to Dang Wangi or Sentral.

During the rally, the police responded by firing chemical laced water cannons and tear gas at rally participants at the Masjid Jamek and Bandaraya LRT meeting points.[9][10] 245 people were arrested according to the local daily newspapers The Star, owned by MCA, one of the coalition parties of the current ruling government.[11] Independent sources, however, quoted only 34 people were arrested and released the night later.[12]

Purportedly, the organisers of BERSIH had ordered participants to be cooperative and the assembly was to remain peaceful at all times.

Media's response[edit]

Foreign media such as Al-Jazeera covered the event with detailed videos and ground and satellite images. BBC and CNN featured the news in their online papers as well. Bangkok Post published this event on its internet edition and fine print.

The event received almost no coverage in the local media. The most widely circulated English daily, The Star only reported a traffic congestion. Other print dailies did not report the incident.[citation needed]

Government responses[edit]

Prime Minister[edit]

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi remarked that the Malaysian Royalty should not be dragged into Malaysian politics. He further alleged that the rally constituted an attempt by the Opposition to drag the Yang di-Pertuan Agong into the issue.[13][14] Constitutionally, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is the Head of the State while the Prime Minister is the Head of Government. Earlier, BERSIH had informed the public that the rally is a non-partisan activity, agreed by all organisers with NGOs (non-governmental organisations) forming the principal backbone of the movement, followed by some opposition parties.

BERSIH had earlier insisted the rally was non-partisan; however, no parties from the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition participated. In fact, there was a cry for a clampdown on the rally by delegates and hard-liners in the 2007 UMNO Annual General Meeting.[15]

Information Minister[edit]

Later, Information Minister Datuk Seri Zainuddin Maidin criticized Al-Jazeera, denying reports that the police used excessive force in the demonstration. Zainuddin said that the police had to disperse the gathering with water cannons and tear gas since the rally was illegal. There are online allegations that certain journalists and civilians were beaten by authorities.[1] Mainstream media confirmed arrests of people who had joined the rally. Most Malaysian media outlets generally gave the number of protesters present as approximately 4,000, although independent and international media reported a turnout ten times higher. Zainuddin Maidin was severely criticized in various socio-political blogs for his poor command of English shown during an interview with the Qatar based news group Al-Jazeera regarding the rally.[16]

Later the people marched towards Istana Negara to hand over the memorandum after many attempts (from the police) to disperse the mob failed.[17] Some had travelled from other states to claim their rights.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Department[edit]

Nazri Aziz, from the ruling party UMNO gave a negative response. He claimed there is democracy in Malaysia, therefore there is no necessity for a rally.[18]

Nazri further predicted that the opposition parties "are going to lose, and they are going to lose badly in the next elections". He also insisted that Malaysia was a democracy, thus invalidating comparisons with Myanmar because the Buddhist monks in Myanmar were protesting for the restoration of democracy in a country where the people were oppressed.

However, Nazri did not admit that protest is allowed in democracies. BERSIH demands, with support from citizens for the restoration of genuine democracy. Unclean elections due to unfair electoral processes is equivalent to false or absent democracy.

Moreover, both Myanmar and Malaysia crack down on rallies and protests not permitted by the government. Human Rights associations across the world regard freedom to assemble and rally as fundamental rights of a citizen in democratic nations.

Royals' response[edit]

According to Malaysiakini, Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abdidin in a rare press statement said neither he nor Istana Negara had directly or indirectly supported the massive rally held over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur.[19]

According to Bernama, the King, in a statement issued via a palace official, expressed regret over the claim that he and the palace had supported Saturday’s illegal gathering.[20]

International response[edit]

On 29 November 2007, the AFP carried a comment by an anonymous official from the United States State Department stating that "We believe citizens of any country should be allowed to peacefully assemble and express their views."[21]

Rally proceedings[edit]

It was reported that the rally participants played a 'cat and mouse' game with the riot police, as many of the groups were repeatedly stopped by the police and disallowed from continuing.

The group from Masjid Jamek were sprayed with water cannons and tear gas canisters, but still managed to continue their march by joining the group congregating in front of the Sogo departmental store.

The group from Pasar Seni, led by Tian Chua attempted to pass through police barricades that blocked them from approaching the palace. This group also tried to negotiate with the police. As the negotiations were going on, this group found an alley that was not guarded by riot police, hence being able to bypass the police to get to the palace.

500 people from the Pasar Seni group joined part of the Sogo group to continue their march. Meanwhile, 10,000 people from Masjid Negara had begun marching to Istana Negara. They split into two groups to increase the chance of reaching Istana Negara.

A combined group of 40,000 people, stretching half a kilometer long along the highway were stopped by police 300 meters from the palace grounds. They were eventually joined by the group from Masjid Jamek and Sogo.

Police allowed a delegation of 7 people, including PAS's President Abdul Hadi Awang and Nasharuddin Mat Isa, DAP’s Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng and Keadilan's Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to enter the palace.

After the memorandum was handed over to a palace secretary, most of the rally participants were seen walking back to Masjid Negara. About 20 people had been arrested earlier in the day and were held at Pudu police station. When they finally arrived at Masjid Negara, they were told to go home. Some of the rally participants went to the Pudu police station to support those who were detained.

Notes and references[edit]

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