With its response to Bersih 2.0, a rally for electoral reform, the government has created an environment of fear and repression.
Based on the evidence of this weekend's rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysians aspire for a more competitive political system than what they have. Also based on this weekend's evidence, Prime Minister Najib Razak isn't prepared to give it to them.
An estimated 20,000 or more people peacefully gathered in Kuala Lumpur Saturday to call for free and fair elections. Their complaints included vote-rigging and gerrymandering of constituencies to the ruling party's benefit. Bersih 2.0, as the rally was called, was the biggest event of its kind in four years. The original Bersih (the word means "clean" in Malay) called for electoral reforms in 2007.
As with the original rally, this one was met not by understanding from the government but by police deploying tear gas and water cannons. More than 1,600 attendees were detained and released late Sunday. One demonstrator died from a heart attack.
The crackdown was little surprise given the government's actions before the rally. Over the past two weeks, the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) tried its best to intimidate the organizers. More than 200 activists and opposition members were detained, some on charges of "waging war" against Malaysia's constitutional monarch. The police arrested those wearing T-shirts affiliated with Bersih. The army publicly conducted crowd-control exercises.
The situation was on the boil until the king intervened, asking both sides to settle differences. Mr. Najib offered a stadium to host the rally but then backed off. Last Thursday, he appeared with a group of martial artists who vowed to "wage war" against Bersih, saying: "If there are evil enemies who want to attack the country from within, you, my brothers, will rise to fight them." His scare tactics backfired as thousands of protesters, further angered, arrived from across the country.
Saturday's rally has united and energized the political opposition. So the government is now downplaying the entire event and even blaming Bersih for creating chaos. The police claim only 6,000 protesters showed up. Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein complimented police efforts to keep control despite "being challenged and provoked." He said the protesters sought "to be arrested in order to portray the government as cruel."
If the government is going to respond like this—intimidation followed by denial—a Bersih 3.0 could eventually materialize, though organizers have ruled it out anytime soon. Underlying this weekend's events is growing public impatience with UMNO as Malaysians find rising inflation, coupled with slow reforms, eating into their standard of living. Saturday's turnout is a sign that Malaysians also understand the link between true democracy and good government.
On Sunday, Mr. Najib called on the "silent majority" of Malaysians, who he claims opposed Bersih, to speak up. If he continues to create an environment of fear and repression, he may find this silent majority speaking up soon, but against him.
-Wall Street Journal-