By Gayathry Venkiteswaran
I expect political parties to make negotiations and compromises, sometimes wrongly, but they do have a constituency and I do believe in the power of the elections, through which I can tell them what I think.
Now, with NGOs, it’s another story. To whom are they accountable? How can they be effective checks and balances if they sit at the same table, not to discuss implementation of reforms, but merely to offer legitimacy to what I think is an undemocratic group? You can’t be leaders of influential movements and then claim to be only individuals in this political move.
Of course, I acknowledge that we are not forced to sign the declaration so why make all the noise: but NGOs cannot make political decisions and expect not to be criticised, especially if supporters feel they have acted with little accountability.
So my three background settings:
1) Bersih’s committee met to discuss their strategy; we know the outcome. I would like to know if there were dissenting voices, and if so how many? Did the wider community of NGOs discuss the declaration and the strategies post-declaration? I think the answer is no, but I would be happy to hear otherwise.
Hundreds of thousands of people have responded over the years to Bersih’s call: on the streets, online, in cash or in kind. I figure they and we are far more important than Mahathir.
2) The BN government, as well as its machinery, is rotten to the core. It has to go. Ambiga responded to a critic, who said that Mahathir has taken them for a ride, with: “We are not that stupid” – my response, to those who feel they have to lecture us on the bad situation of the country, thus justifying the move is: “We are not that stupid either.”
3) The Pakatan leadership has shown anything but leadership. They have done some good administrative work, but in critical political situations, they crumble. So I will not hedge my bets on them all the time.
And so, here are four reasons why I won’t be signing the declaration:
1) The main beneficiary is Umno. By involving their stalwarts and using the language of reform (which was minimal in the document), they want to present themselves as the “reformers” or the conscience of the party.
Mukhriz’s statement just proves what they have really wanted out of this, and that is: to remove his nemesis, so he can be in power. For that, they could have organised a petition among the Mahathir-loyal diehards in Umno and done what they wished.
What does the BN cohort bring to the table that has tilted the power equation for civil society? I care not for Umno and BN and have always wished for them to self-implode. So I will not sign the declaration to give Mukhriz, Muhyiddin and Mahathir any legitimacy.
2) Where was the consultation, really? No, it’s not so urgent a matter that consultation had to be compromised. Many of us have put put voices and fingerprints on calls for reforms and I firmly believe the process is as important as the outcome.
To me the following Peoples’ Declaration is closer to what I think of as a united and representative voice, one drawn up collectively as a result of a Peoples’ Assembly, an open and consultative process. I support that.
Bersih’s demands were also a result of consultation and a determined campaign, which I fully support.
But not this Mahathirian document which appears to have been done quickly and quietly. I will not sign a declaration with little citizen input and which was not openly conceived.
3) The argument of “what is the alternative” is a false choice. It is not this or nothing at all: we have options and we can mobilise through different means. Yes, some people would rather not have demonstrations, but a demonstration is a legitimate form of political expression, as are campaigns and continuous political pressure. They all work in combination.
So I take offence at those who support the declaration initiative and retort that the rest of us are doing nothing, or that people who stake their claims on elections are not really empowered.
Belittling your allies and, worse still, fellow citizens, is not the hallmark of a strong civil society. This declaration may be a path for some but please do not present it as the only option available at this point. So I will not sign the declaration because I will take the other paths available to me.
4) A rather sensitive issue has also come up – the endorsement of those who have suffered in the hands of Mahathir and who have said they are willing to let go, to focus on the big picture.
I have always been inspired by the activists and politicians who fought, and paid with their freedoms. To forgive Mahathir and let the past be must have taken tremendous strength on their part. We admire them for that. But many have suffered in different ways and to different extents, as a result of an unjust system.
A face and a mechanism of accountability is needed, for those who have been wronged to seek justice. Letting-go needs to be turned into a proper form of holding responsible those in power. A formal reconciliation process is needed for so many of the ghosts of the past. That hasn’t happened and doesn’t seem to be on offer.
Mahathir has not been held accountable for his actions. It is not enough to hear a few say that they forgive him, to justify this Mahathirian declaration. So I will not sign it.
Gayathry Venkiteswaran is a former executive director of the South-East Asian Press Alliance, based in Bangkok.
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