All the violence during the Bersih 2.0 rally came from the police, said Ambiga during a fundraising dinner in London.
Over the weekend, Bersih 2.0 chairman Ambiga Sreenivasan drew a big draw in London, bringing enthusiastic audiences to a fund-raising dinner and to listen to speeches.
The Bersih 2.0 rally had produced an excellent sympathy turnout over here in July, with several hundred marchers clad in yellow making the walk from the Malaysian High Commission over to Trafalgar Square.
The time difference between the two regions made the London event especially poignant, because by the time it got going news had already come through about what had happened to friends back home.
This weekend was the first chance for many to receive a first-hand account of what took place and from the leader of the event herself.
Ambiga manages a rare combination. She is a highly formidable female, but also warm and engaging.
She laid out with clarity and objectivity why she had led her lawyerly revolt.
For us who had been so far away it was a welcome analysis.
Bersih’s concerns had been sparked off by their observation of the Sarawak state election, she explained.
To their horror they witnessed “the dirtiest election ever” with “out and out vote buying”, “intimidation”, “phantom votes” and all the paraphernalia of rigged elections.
The fact that modern technology meant there was solid, recorded evidence of plenty of cheating meant that, in Ambiga’s view, the Election Commission had a constitutional duty to investigate and take action.
However, to her dismay the Election Commission did nothing.
EC’s wilful ignorance
As a former leader of the Malaysian Bar Council, Ambiga couches her arguments in the language of the law and not politics.
She explained how Bersih had appealed to all political parties on the issue, but that support had come only from the opposition.
Yet, her most withering criticism was directed towards officials of the Election Commission for their persistent attacks on the opposition and their refusal to investigate fraud.
“The Election Commissioners just don’t understand that under the constitution they are supposed to be independent of the government,” she sighed.
There can be nothing more frustrating for a lawyer than such wilful ignorance by those who have responsibility for upholding the rule of law.
For those who had been distant from the event, Ambiga’s description of what had happened to her and others at the rally was shocking.
Police had subjected her and the leader of the opposition to an attack of tear gas, fired at them from both ends in an enclosed tunnel.
“(It was) the most frightening experience of my life, I could not breathe,” Ambiga said.
Back in Malaysia, she said, BN politicians are now crowing that their tough handling of the rally had been designed to avoid the rioting and looting that had resulted from the soft tactics against protesters last week in the UK.
Wryly, Ambiga explained the main difference between the two events.
“In Malaysia all the violence came from the police”, she pointed out.
‘Raw abuse of power’
Not a pot had been broken by the peaceful demonstrators, who had turned out because they did not want the illegal practices and improprieties that they had seen in Sarawak to spill over into the upcoming general election in Malaysia.
But, the Bersih 2.0 leader is full of optimism and hope.
Thanks to the foolish handling by the government, their campaign has been successful beyond their wildest dreams.
To begin with, the Bersih Executive Committee had been worried that they would never be able to inspire the people with such a dry and difficult topic as electoral reform.
Would voters appreciate the significance of such matters as electoral registers, boundary delineation and all the little tricks that allow for the manipulation of election results?
But, as they started to mount their protests and demand key reforms, the response of the government took them by surprise and played right into their hands.
“We didn’t expect for a minute the violent reaction. It was so extreme” she said.
In her analysis, it was this “raw abuse of power”: the threats to lock her up under the ISA laws, the lies about funding, the raids on their premises, that woke up the Malaysian public to the rally and the principles that Bersih were trying to protect.
Who could have imagined, for example, that the matter of indelible ink for voting slips could have become such a major political issue?
Yet, the ferocity of the government’s refusal to take this very sensible step has created suspicion throughout Malaysia.
Since the rally, explained Ambiga, people have woken up to the fact that the electoral roll is a mess.
“The achievement of that day is heightened awareness of the importance of electoral reform”.
Every day now communities are actively scrutinising their local registers and turning up anomalies they wish to complain about.
Bersih’s crucial campaign for clean elections has taken centre stage in Malaysian politics, just as she wished.
Clare Rewcastle Brown is the founder/editor of Sarawak Report. She is also a FMT columnist.