Street protests lead to chaos? To Bersih, they paved the way to Malaysia's birth and reforms

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

KUALA LUMPUR, June 25 — Street demonstrations do not always lead to mere chaos, Bersih said today following royal criticism of its past rallies and protests in general.

The electoral reform group defended the right to peaceful public assembly, saying street rallies are a legitimate way for Malaysians to express themselves and have proved to be useful in not only improving government processes and institutions but has been constructive in the formation of Malaysia.

“The Bersih rallies over the years had been referred to by the Sultan of Johor in a statement yesterday as ‘black marks’ and ‘riots’ in our nation's history as, in His Majesty's views, these protests only led to ‘negative’ impacts such as chaos and destruction.

“Bersih respectfully disagrees, and we would like to point out that protests are legitimate means of political expression and are formative to our country's history,” the Bersih steering committee said in a statement.

The group was responding to Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar's reported remarks yesterday that criticised a call for Malaysians to rally in the streets again as a show of public unhappiness over rising living costs.

The Johor Ruler said “protesting on the streets is not the Malaysian way” and would negatively affect the country's economy by scaring off investors and hamper Covid-19 recovery efforts.

He also pointed to past Bersih rallies as examples of public demonstrations that “never achieved anything, except chaos, destruction and a black mark on our nation’s history!”.

In response, Bersih also highlighted that peaceful assembly is a guaranteed right under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.

The group said street protests have played an integral role in Malaysia's formation.

“Arguably, one can say that this country was born out of a protest movement. Dato Onn Jaafar rallied the masses to object against the Malayan Union, which was unilaterally imposed by the British after the Second World War, and this paved the way to the formation of the Federation of Malaya, the precursor to our eventual independence from the British in 1957 and the formation of Malaysia in 1963,” Bersih said.

Bersih also noted multiple examples of street protests in Malaysia as a legitimate means of collective action.

It listed the 1947 multiracial Putera-AMCJA coalition advocacy for the People’s Constitution, the 1974 Baling Demonstration, the 1998 Reformasi movement, and most recently, the Malaysian Bar’s Walk for Judicial Independence to defend a judge who presided over a corruption trial that led to the conviction of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Bersih said its past street rallies to highlight electoral malpractices and shortcomings had led the government to introduce reform measures such as using indelible ink.

The group also said its fourth and fifth peaceful street rallies in 2015 and 2016 saw hundreds of thousands of Malaysians join in to condemn the 1MDB financial scandal, and push for legal action against the perpetrators.

“We demanded for institutional changes to existing laws to end the scourge of corruption in this country and for the culprits will be held accountable,” Bersih said.

“Bersih has from the very beginning committed ourselves to organising peaceful protests and if there had been disorderly conducts, chaos or even damaged to properties, it had usually been caused by aggressive actions by the police who, instead of facilitating the peaceful protestors, attacked us with tear gas, water cannons and brute force.

“We have proven beyond doubt that we could organise large-scale peaceful protests during Bersih 4 and 5, where apart from blocking several roads and places, the police left us alone,” it said.

Addressed the Johor Ruler directly, Bersih invited Sultan Ibrahim to celebrate the fundamental right to assemble peacefully.

“Your Majesty, history proves that civil disobedience has always been part and parcel of our DNA. Bersih invites Your Majesty to join us in not only respecting but celebrating the rakyat's fundamental rights to freedom of speech, expression, form associations and hold peaceful protests.

“As a nation practicing parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, we ought to welcome and recognize any expression and participation by our rakyat for the common good of Malaysia. Without protests, there would have been no Malaysia,” the group said, ending its statement.