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Bersih 3.0 violence marks a turning point

 | May 7, 2012

Indians choosing to stay home leaves the arena to the two major races, Malay and Chinese.


Aliran, the NGO that organized the Penang Bersih 3.0 chapter of Duduk Bantah, carried in their website an eyewitness account by one ‘Bersih Mum’ on the conduct of the rally in Kuala Lumpur.

‘Bersih Mum’ is from Subang Jaya – a middle-class, strongly pro-opposition suburb. She wrote: “… to my Indian brothers and sisters … Anneh, Thamby, where were you? We missed you-lah at Bersih 3.0”.

Her observation on Indians ‘missing in action’ is corroborated by independent monitors, including the Human Rights Party. A HRP statement said that YouTube videos, photographs via e-mail and in Facebook as well as feedback received revealed “the very thin Indian participation”.

“Reporters on the ground also communicated the same thing to us,” said the HRP leadership.

A Hindraf analyst who requested anonymity pointed to the race disparity of the latest Bersih edition.

While the consensus is that the Indian presence was certainly negligible and unreflective of their seven-plus percentage in the national population, the analyst said the Chinese on the contrary made an unusually strong showing.

For the first time in the history of Malaysians taking to the street since 1969, the Chinese and Malay turnout respectively with regard to Bersih 3.0 was estimated at almost half-half. This disproportion bucks the country’s race ratio wherein the 2010 population census indicated Malay 54.6%, Chinese 24.6% and Indian 7.3%.

Other Hindraf activists I spoke to similarly backed the findings of the informal survey of who (ethnicity wise) had taken part. The usual suspects from the Indian-majority Parti Sosialis Malaysia made their presence felt but it was the conspicuous Indian absence that spoke volumes.

Indians choosing to stay home leaves the arena to the two major races, Malay and Chinese.

Ethnic polarity

It is common knowledge that our security forces are predominantly Malay. However, in Bersih 3.0, the confrontation between the authorities in uniform and the agitators was not Malay versus Chinese but Malay versus Malay. The more than 50 suspects linked to the outbreak of violence and wanted by police for questioning were almost all Malay-looking with only a handful of exceptions.

Although Chinese protesters thronged the streets around Jalan Sultan (Chinatown) and anti-Lynas Himpunan Hijau members swarmed the KLCC area, they managed to avoid notable skirmishes with the police.

Thus the Chinese-Malay polarity vis-à-vis Bersih is not a physical manifestation but lies more in the mindset and was most tellingly illustrated by the spat between the DAP vice chairman and the party secretary-general.

Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim is an “anak polis” (coming from a ‘police family’). His father was former OCPD of Alor Setar. Thus the take by Tunku Aziz on Bersih’s potential for violence diverged from his Chinese party colleagues, and his dissident stance earning him a sharp rebuke from Lim Guan Eng.

Most Malays have close friends or at least a relative if not more in the police and army, and this is where they deviate from the Chinese. In view of the pro- /anti-establishment bias aligned along racial affiliations, it was a wise decision by Indians to strategically sit out Bersih.

Why should the mousedeer want to be caught in the middle when two elephants fight?

We can interpret the fence-sitting to be due to Bersih’s demands – a few of which are abstract in nature – failing to resonate with working-class Indians more concerned with pressing bread-and-butter issues.

A regular commenter at my blog wondered aloud as to what it would take to satisfy the protesters. With tongue in cheek, he declared the government should indeed fulfil Bersih’s 7th and 8th demands, viz. “stop corruption”, and put a halt to “dirty politics”.

My blog reader challenged: “Perhaps Najib [Razak] should suspend the democratic process until Ambiga [Sreenevasan] and her friends are satisfied that all the 8 demands have been met. The PM should take Bersih 3.0 seriously, no GE [general election] until all the 8 demands are met!”

His rhetorical flourish is intended as a counterfoil to highlight the impossibility of guaranteeing the whole Bersih wish list.

I agree with his calling Bersih’s bluff. As long as corruption remains with us and politics is dirty, don’t hold the general election. Postpone it indefinitely just as how the DAP party elections have been deferred in recent years, why not?

What Bersih really wants

Then there is the matter of Bersih 3.0 shifting the goalposts. From the initial eight demands, the movement has upped the ante by holding the government to ransom with the threat of more street demonstrations to rock the capital.

Ambiga and her steering committee are now demanding the resignation of the entire Election Commission. How reasonable is that? The EC is a legally constituted agency and the entity with which to hold any negotiation. Asking for the EC’s removal is alike to overturning the discussion table.

In pointing the gun, there seems to be hidden motives other than seeking a remedy for our electoral shortcomings. No wonder then that former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad finds “the real objective” of Bersih questionable.

“Sunday’s Bersih 3 demonstration is no doubt the biggest and the most violent in the series,” stated Dr M unequivocally.

His is a view shared by the prime minister and other BN figures, and naturally echoed throughout the state media where Najib was widely quoted as describing the rally to be an attempt to topple the government.

“They wanted to make Dataran Merdeka like the Tahrir Square in Egypt,” he said.

The Star also reported an announcement by Inspector-General of Police Ismail Omar that his men “have started an investigation to identify the mastermind behind the so-called attempt to overthrow the government by way of the [Bersih 3.0] demonstration”.

While the appeal to stability is admittedly an old chestnut, still, non-partisan bystanders are beginning to ask if the Pakatan is stable enough.

Politics is about compromise but with the opposition troika, this ingredient appears to be lacking.

Race-religion divide

Mahathir the maverick has opted to ring the alarm bells; clanging that future Bersih masses are likely to be “even bigger and more violent”.

Another top ex-cabinet minister Daim Zainudin is more shadowy but no less influential. Although he speaks softly, oppositionists should not forget that the elites and Umno vested interests carry a big stick.

In an interview with Nanyang Siang Pau in late March, Daim warned that “Malaysia is akin to walking the tightrope, almost half the time is spent on maintaining balance on the wire”.

He opined the above in the context of the 80% Chinese support for Pakatan calculated by his intelligence, in contrast to Malay and Indian voters generally preferring Barisan Nasional.

Most Chinese make the mistake of misreading the surface quiescence of the Malay grassroots as a tolerance of the DAP push and push and push. They appear ignorant of the Malay proverb ‘air tenang jangan disangka tiada buaya’.

It’s not difficult to fathom why the Chinese are so clueless. One viral Bersih 3.0 clip which has easily registered more than half a million views to date (in total from several separate video uploads of the same incident) hammers home the point.

The video(s) shows an altercation between a Chinese woman in the Bersih yellow and a journalist attached to a “non-Western, foreign channel which broadcasts internationally”.

According to the man’s account of the story, “she seemed to pick me out from the group of journalists at the front line because I was the only obvious foreigner among them. She began shouting at me, (she had been shouting about various things from the beginning, like pushing the protesters to enter Dataran Merdeka)”.

In her verbal assault, the woman screams, “You’re corrupted, corrupted” at the man whom she calls “you white idiot”.

The man retorted: “Saya orang Islam. Saya tinggal di sini. Isteri saya orang Malaysia. Jangan biadab kau.”

There have been a couple of thousand comments in Malay on YouTube to this. DAP followers should read these responses as the public reaction bears closer examination.

By asserting he is Muslim, the journalist immediately got the crowd on his side but this tactic also signals an implicit demarcation of ‘us’ and ‘them’. By virtue of being Muslim, he is an insider; through grating Malay onlookers with her pretentious English inflection, the woman is perceived as alien and thus perpetuating the ‘pendatang’ name-calling.

Coupled with the fact that he spoke in our national language whereas she spoke in English, the foreigner had the YouTube community cheering him on while the woman was vilified with racist epithets.

Danger of riots

DAP has been assiduously flogging photos of participants passing each other water and salt in order to promote their propaganda that the Bersih event engendered a new camaraderie crossing racial lines.

In truth, such assistance given each other is only situational. For example, if I saw a writhing dog or a cat on the road that had been run over, I’d help it too – an action across specie lines, no less.

The DAP yellow shirts should instead take note of the anti-Chinese sentiments expressed by YouTube users where almost none credited the said Chinese woman with an ability to speak Malay.

During the civil war in northern Ireland (1968-1994), the Irish Catholics and Protestants – same nationality, same race, same language, same religion and only separated by denomination – were killing each other.

In Malaysia where we pronouncedly belong to different races, different religions and not even effectively sharing a common tongue, don’t you think that the situation is more volatile?

Even the developed democracies are sounding their doubts about multiculturalism.

In mid-October of 2010, German chancellor Angela Merkel admitted “the approach [to build] a multicultural [society] … has failed, utterly failed.” The crowd gathered in Potsdam greeted her remarks with a standing ovation.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the then French President, declared on Feb 10, 2011 in a nationally televised debate that multiculturalism was “a failure”. Sarkozy’s complaint on how France had been “too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him” is something that Malays might endorse quite enthusiastically.

Preceding him was the British prime minister – quoted in a BBC report on Feb 5, 2011 headlined ‘State multiculturalism has failed, says David Cameron’ – lamenting “We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.”

The anti-immigrant current in Western Europe has not abated. Earlier in the opening round of the French presidential election, the far right’s Marine Le Pen collected a remarkable 18% of the votes, nipping at the heels of Sarkozy (27%) and François Hollande (29%).

Yesterday, ‘The Economist’ ran a copy that said ethnic Chinese and Thais were deliberately targeted by the insurgents who exploded car bombs in Ruammit Road in Muang district of Yala. The March 31 blasts killed 11 people and injured more than a hundred.

Yala, together with its sister provinces Songkhla, Pattani and Narathiwat in southern Thailand where Muslim guerrillas continue to wage a separatist war, has recorded 128 deaths and 657 injuries in the first quarter of this year alone from the militancy.

Dr M cautioned that “[t]he average Malaysian always think what happens in other countries will not happen here” but the “possibility [of shattered peace] is not farfetched”.

The writer blogs at http://helenang.wordpress.com


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