The government of Najib Razak is demonizing protesters demanding free and fair elections.The Malaysian government has pulled out all the stops to prevent an opposition rally this weekend. This week, army units conducted crowd control exercises with banners that said, "Disperse or we will shoot!" The police set up roadblocks and arrested Malaysians simply for wearing yellow T-shirts, the signature color of Bersih, a coalition of 62 nongovernmental organizations that demands changes in Malaysia's electoral system. To date, the police have arrested over 250 supporters of Bersih, claiming that they are "waging war against the king."
Then something unprecedented happened. Malaysia's King Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, allegedly the target of Bersih's campaign, intervened. He called on both Prime Minister Najib Razak and Bersih to resolve their differences in a spirit of harmony and cooperation, for the good of the nation.
There was a collective sigh of relief in Malaysia. The leader of Bersih, Ambiga Sreenevasan, an attorney and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, met with the king and announced that the "Walk for Democracy," as it was called, was cancelled. She said that she was ready to meet with the government to discuss Bersih's concerns about electoral fairness. Prime Minister Najib then offered an olive branch, saying, "We are willing to provide a stadium for them to rally in … from morning until night," an offer that Ms. Ambiga and Bersih immediately accepted.
Then Mr. Najib backed off. His government says that because Bersih is still illegal, it cannot apply for a permit. It also has banned Bersih's leadership from entering Kuala Lumpur on the day of the rally. On Thursday, he joined a gathering of martial artists who said that their 50,000 members will "wage war" against Bersih. Donning their militant uniform, Mr. Najib said, "If there are evil enemies who want to attack the country from within, you, my brothers, will rise to fight them."
Mr. Najib has undermined the authority of the king, who gave Bersih and its concerns credence by meeting with its leadership and calling for a negotiated solution. The political situation in Malaysia is a fast-moving target, and each day brings new developments. Ms. Ambiga and Bersih now say that because of Mr. Najib's actions, they will go ahead with their assembly, no matter what.
Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. Bersih's main issue is not freedom of assembly but the fairness of Malaysia's democratic process. Bersih's backers ask how anyone can be opposed to free and fair elections. It's an easy question to answer. The United Malays National Organization, of which Mr. Najib is president, is the longest continuing ruling party in the world, and it is running scared.
In the last general election in 2008, Malaysia's opposition took 47% of the popular vote. That year Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the party of Mr. Najib's nemesis Anwar Ibrahim, went from one seat to 31. The establishment parties in Malaysia's neighboring states are also in retreat. The opposition scored a major victory in Thailand last weekend, and in Singapore opposition candidates made surprising gains. No wonder Mr. Najib and company are worried.
Many observers of Malaysian politics believe that electoral reform will lead to the ruling party's defeat, and that is why UMNO is afraid of Bersih. In the last election in 2008, the party received only one-third of the nation's votes. UMNO rules only because of its coalition with other political parties, which it increasingly marginalizes, that represent the Chinese and Indian minorities.
Mr. Najib and his allies say that the opposition's gains in 2008 prove that Malaysia's elections are free and fair. Impartial observers disagree. Academic studies have enumerated how the Election Commission gerrymanders electoral districts to benefit the ruling party. The U.S. Department of State's human rights report bluntly states that opposition parties are unable to compete on equal terms with the governing coalition because of restrictions on campaigning and freedom of assembly and association. "News of the opposition," the U.S. says, is "tightly restricted and reported in a biased fashion."
In the recent state elections in Sarawak, the government announced $390 million in local projects during the run-up to the polls. Prime Minister Najib was caught on video tape telling one village gathering that the government would give them 5 million ringgit ($1.5 million) for a local project on Monday, but only if they elected his candidate on Sunday.
Who would win elections in Malaysia that truly are free and fair? The U.S. State Department reports that despite the many election irregularities during the 2008 elections, "most observers concluded they did not substantially alter the results." But unless the electoral reforms that Bersih is calling for are made, we will never know.
Despite the government's intimidation, thousands of Malaysian citizens of all races and religions are expected to exercise their constitutional right to assemble and call for free and fair elections. Tomorrow's protest represents a brave step in what not just Malaysians but also the international community should hope will begin the country's transition to full democracy. Mr. Najib should display his own courage and ensure that a peaceful rally that seeks the fundamental rights of democratic peoples everywhere does not turn into a bloody
confrontation.- John Malott
(John Malott was the United States ambassador to Malaysia from 1995-98.)