Malaysians are bracing themselves for Bersih 4. A 34-hour rally is due to start in Kuala Lumpur this afternoon (Saturday), and there will also be demonstrations in Kota Kinabalu and Kuching on the island of Borneo.
The rallies are being held to demand free and fair elections in Malaysia, a clean, transparent system of government, and an end to the corruption that has been plaguing the country for decades.
The demonstrators will be calling for the resignation of the prime minister, Najib Razak, who is accused of siphoning off huge amounts of public money for his own use. They want parliamentary democracy to be strengthened and are demanding that the right to dissent should be preserved. The country’s economy, they say, has to be rescued.
The youth wing of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party) has added a call for the release of the PKR’s de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is serving a five-year jail sentence for sodomy, to the Bersih 4 demands.
Rallies calling for Anwar’s release have been held since he was jailed in February. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur for a protest on March 7, but today’s rally is expected to be much bigger.
There have also been demonstrations against the Goods and Services Tax (GST), introduced in April.
Police say the Bersih 4 rallies are illegal and the authorities are refusing to allow the protesters to enter KL’s Merdeka Square, which is the venue for the Independence Day celebrations on August 31. They also asked the organisers to change the date of the protest and hold the rally on the following weekend.
The authorities have blocked local access to the website run by the Bersih 4 organisers.
Bersih 4 organisers say the rallies will go ahead as planned and protesters will stay out of Merdeka (Independence) Square.
Malaysians in about 75 cities around the world will be holding solidarity rallies to mark Bersih 4.
The Bersih Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections has received more than 1.5 million ringgit (about 359,539 US$) in donations. “This amount far exceeds our initial budget of 200,000 ringgit, which was based on shoe-string estimates and our sense of the economic hardship Malaysians are enduring,” the coalition stated.
Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, says the organisers of Bersih 4 have an agenda to topple the government. He says those who join the rallies may face arrest under the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act.
Lawyers say participants will not be flouting any laws as long as they assemble peacefully and avoid causing serious public disorder.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has said it will bar websites from promoting and spreading information about Bersih 4 and encouraging the public to take part in the rallies.
The Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, has declared that any yellow clothing that carries the statement Bersih 4 and any printed material that promotes Bersih 4 are now illegal. It is therefore now considered to be illegal to wear a Bersih 4 t-shirt.
“The printing, importation, production, reproduction, publishing, sale, issue, circulation, distribution or possession of the publication described in the Schedule which is likely to be prejudicial to public order, likely to be prejudicial to security, likely to be contrary to any law and likely to be prejudicial to national interest are absolutely prohibited throughout Malaysia,” the executive order stated.
Peaceful Assembly Act
In an article written for the Star Online, lawyer Syahredzan Johan said that, according to the federal constitution, the right to assembly peacefully could be restricted by parliament, but any such restrictions had to be reasonable and proportionate to their purpose.
“The Peaceful Assembly Act was enacted to facilitate the right of citizens to assembly peacefully without arms,” Syahredzan wrote.
“Under the PAA, there is no longer a requirement to obtain a permit. Instead, an organiser of an assembly has an obligation to give notification to the OCPD (the Officer in Charge of a Police District) 10 days before an assembly is to be held.”
Once notification is given, Syahredzan says, the OCPD can impose certain conditions and restrictions to the intended assembly, but it has no power to completely prohibit or prevent the holding of that assembly.
An assembly without the pre-requisite notification is not an unlawful assembly, Syahredzan says. “The organisers would have committed an offence under the Act, but the police cannot deny the holding of that assembly merely because notification is not given.”
In a landmark case brought by Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad, who is the PKR youth leader and assemblyman for Seri Setia in Selangor state, the Court of Appeal held that the PAA provision that criminalises the organiser of an assembly for not complying with the notification requirement is unconstitutional.
The director of Lawyers for Liberty, Eric Paulsen, who has himself been arrested several times, tweeted on Monday: “Msian protesters are usually peaceful. Chaos only erupt when authorities make unnecessary arrest, use tear gas, water cannon etc.”
Paulsen tweeted yesterday: “In 2012, court declared Home Minister’s order declaring Bersih as an illegal organisation as irrational & consequently null & void.” and “Quite absurd to declare #Bersih4 paraphernalia as illegal when there is no question on Bersih’s legality. Order must be challenged.”
Bersih past and present
Bersih 4 is the fourth street protest to be organised by the Bersih Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections in the past eight years. The first was held on November 10, 2007; the second – the “Walk for Democracy” – was held on July 9, 2011; and the third Bersih protest, dubbed the “Sit-in” rally, was held on April 28, 2012.
About 300,000 people came out onto the streets for Bersih 3. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters and there are concerns that the authorities could do the same this weekend.
Bersih 3 in Kuala Lumpur, April 2012.
Police also used water cannons and tear gas to disperse Bersih 1 and Bersih 2 protesters. There were contradictory reports about the number of arrests during Bersih 1, with the figures ranging from 34 people to 245.
A total of 1,667 demonstrators were reported to have been arrested during Bersih 2, and 512 were reported to have been detained during Bersih 3.
According to a report by the Malaysian Bar Council, police brutality was widespread during Bersih 3, with instances of savage beatings of civilians as well as arbitrary use of tear gas and water cannons. However, the same report said demonstrators had consistently provoked the police. The council stated that the demonstrators had booed, jeered, and insulted members of the police force, who did not retaliate in response to the provocation.
On Twitter and Facebook, Bersih 4 rally-goers are being instructed as to what to bring to protect themselves from tear gas and to stay generally safe. Lawyers have posted videos advising protesters what to do if they are challenged by police or are arrested.
Figure for rallies being held in other countries updated 19h 29/08/2015.