Tens of thousands of Malaysians braved threats of arrest and menaces from the pro-government Red Shirts and came out onto the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, yesterday (Saturday) to demand fair elections, a clean government, and the resignation of the prime minister, Najib Razak.
They also called for the strengthening of parliamentary democracy, the right to dissent, and empowerment for the states of Sabah and Sarawak.
The Bersih 2.0 Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, which organised yesterday’s rally, estimated the turnout to be 120,000. Local media reports put the attendance at 40,000.
Bersih 2.0’s steering committee chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah (pictured left) was arrested on Friday along with the coalition’s secretariat officer Mandeep Singh and other activists.
Maria Chin was detained under the 2012 Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, which means she can be held for up to 28 days, and for two days without legal representation. There was no remand hearing in her case.
“Under Sosma detention, Maria can be detained for a further 28 days. We are shocked and appalled by this abuse of power,” Lawyers for Liberty tweeted.
“SOSMA SHOULD NOT be used for political dissent. You said it was for security in relation to terrorist threats,” lawyer Michelle Yesudas tweeted to the prime minister, Najib Razak.
Maria Chin is also being investigated under Section 124C of Malaysia’s Penal Code for allegedly attempting to commit an activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy. If convicted, she could be sent to prison for 15 years.
The Red Shirts leader Jamal Yunos, who had been quoted as saying “Blood will be paid with blood” after being punched in the nose during a scuffle between police and the Red Shirts last weekend, was detained in the early hours of Saturday.
Demonstrators wearing yellow Bersih t-shirts gathered at three points in the city yesterday. Police prevented those who gathered in the southern Bangsar area from proceeding en masse to join the main demonstration in the city centre, and Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) was cordoned off to prevent demonstrators from holding their rally there.
The deputy chairman of Bersih 2.0, Shahrul Aman Shaari, told the crowds gathered at the National Mosque: “We love this country. We are not here to tear down the government; we’re here to strengthen it.”
Speeches were made next to Dataran Merdeka, then the protesters walked to KLCC and gathered in front of the famous Petronas Twin Towers.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad surprised rallygoers by coming straight to the demonstration after a trip to Sudan. He accused Najib of stealing public money.
“We no longer live under democracy but kleptocracy, a nation ruled by thieves,” the 91-year-old told protesters, to resounding cheers.
This is a big turnaround for Mahathir, who banned street protests and assemblies during his 22 years as prime minister, but now calls on Malaysians to attend the Bersih rallies.
“The time has come for us to topple this cruel regime. Najib is no longer suitable to be the prime minister. He is abusing the law,” Mahathir said.
Najib is accused of siphoning off huge amounts of public money for his own use, but denies all wrongdoing.
The US Department of Justice has filed a civil lawsuit in which it is seeking the forfeiture and recovery of more than $1 billion in assets, which it says are “associated with an international conspiracy to launder funds misappropriated from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund”.
It is alleged that, between 2009 and 2015, more than $3.5 billion in funds belonging to the 1MDB fund was misappropriated.
Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz, and businessman Jho Low have been named in the US lawsuit, while “Malaysian Official 1” was described as Riza’s “relative” and a powerful politician in Malaysia.
On Monday, the opposition politician Rafizi Ramli was sentenced to 18 months in prison for revealing information about the 1MDB scandal. Currently on bail, he attended yesterday’s rally.
The former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin was also loudly cheered by rallygoers. He called for unity and urged opposition parties to put aside their differences. “We want an honest and clean government,” he said. “We need a government that is not autocratic. We need a government for the people that is concerned for the people.”
Mahathir’s daughter Marina also spoke at the rally along with the president of Malaysia’s National Human Rights Society (HAKAM), Ambiga Sreenevasan, and the opposition MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, who is vice-president of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party or PKR) and daughter of the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Husam Musa from the Islamic breakaway party Amanah also addressed the crowd.
There have been horrific death threats again Ambiga Sreenevasan, Mandeep Singh, and Maria Chin and her three sons.
Yesterday’s rally went off peacefully, but tensions were raised when police blocked off an area outside the SOGO department store, saying they were protecting the Bersih 5 demonstrators from a group of Red Shirts.
Bersih 2.0 steering committee Hishamuddin Rais was arrested at Bangsar after giving a speech.
The graphic artist Fahmi Reza was arrested at about 6 p.m. yesterday. Reza is already facing two criminal charges for his posts on social media of an image of Najib with a clown face.
Reza has been charged with two counts of violating section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) that forbids disseminating online content deemed to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass others. His case has been transferred to a newly created Cyber Court and he faces a possible one-year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 ringgit (about US$12,000). He is also being investigated for alleged sedition.
Earlier yesterday, assemblyman Howard Lee Chuan was arrested, and a Red Shirt leader, Armand Azha Abu Hanifah, was also detained.
Late yesterday, the PKR vice-president and MP for Batu, Chua Tian Chang, better known as Tian Chua, and PKR MP Zuraida Kamaruddin (pictured below) were also detained under “Ops Bersih”. They were arrested at their homes.
Tian Chua has been arrested many times and has spent lengthy periods in detention. He said at the launch of a recent Human Rights Watch report about Malaysia that what Najib was doing to suppress opposition would actually speed up his demise.
The MP is one of six people who were charged under the Sedition Act for speeches made at forum in May 2013 about the outcome of the 2013 general election.
Five of those charged have so far been convicted and sentenced. In each case, the prosecution pressed for significant prison sentences. Tian Chua was sentenced to three months in prison and a fine of RM1,800 (about US$407).
The MP is facing numerous other charges. He is under investigation for participating in a number of allegedly unlawful assemblies and for wearing a banned yellow t-shirt bearing the Bersih logo.
The executive director of Lawyers for Liberty, Eric Paulsen, tweeted: “Police are extremely reckless in accusing
#Bersih5 participants, activists & even MPs for rioting when event ended peacefully.”
Also arrested on Friday were the Democratic Action Party (DAP) MP Anthony Loke, former assemblyman Ronnie Liu, and DAP members Jimmy Wong and Lee Khai Ming.
Paulsen tweeted: “Our parliamentary democracy is under siege –
@tianchua @anthonyloke @ybz99 arrested for politically motivated & exaggerated offences.”
He added: “Holding remand hearing against anyone, what more
@anthonyloke at midnight can only be described as bad faith & an abuse of process.”
Parti Socialis Malaysia (PSM) leader S. Arutchelvan, and activists Luqman Nul Hakim Zul Razali, Anis Syafiqah Md Yusof, and Muhammad Safwan Anang were also detained on Friday.
Red Shirts activist Razali Zakaria and Ariffin Abu Bakar from the Black Shirts were also arrested.
The Kuala Lumpur police chief, Amar Singh Ishar Singh, confirmed the arrests on Friday night of 14 people, mostly pro-Bersih activists and opposition politicians.
Bersih 5 rallies were also held in Kuching in Sarawak and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, and in more than fifty cities around the world, including Sydney and Melbourne in Australia and cities in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.
Rallies were also held in the Philippines, Hong Kong, South Korea, China, Japan, and Taiwan.
Over the past seven weeks, a Bersih 5 convoy has visited more than two hundred cities, towns, and villages across Malaysia.
Last year, the organisers of Bersih 4 said 200,000 people came out onto the streets of KL on the first day of the 34-hour protest.
Update 12h50, 20/11/2016. Bersih 2.0 reports 15 “Ops Bersih” arrests so far. “This is a crackdown on civil society leaders, activists, politicians.”
Police seized the Bersih 5 stage and main sound system in the early hours of Saturday morning.
In a statement issued after the rally, the Bersih 2.0 committee said: “The coming together of Malaysians from all ethnic, religious, regional and socio-economic backgrounds in Bersih 5 shows that institutional reforms and Najib’s resignation are a growing Malaysian consensus that no institutions, parties or groups can suppress.”
SUPPORTING CHANGING TIMES
YOU CAN SUPPORT MY WORK VIA THE PAYPAL OR GOCARDLESS BUTTONS ON THE TOP RIGHT-HAND SIDE OF THIS PAGE. DONATIONS AND PAID SUBSCRIPTIONS KEEP THIS WEBSITE GOING. THANKS.