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Unprecedented Demonstrations in Malaysia: Power slipping from UMNO?

Updated On: Nov 14, 2007

Malaysia saw its largest demonstration in a decade on 10 November (Saturday).

As many as 40,000 protestors marched in Kuala Lumpur, demanding reforms in the electoral system. The demonstration was organised by Bersih, or the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, which comprised of 70 non-governmental organisations and opposition parties.

Although demonstrations of this magnitude are rare in Malaysia, with the last one a decade ago, there have been several smaller demonstrations in Malaysia this year. Earlier in September, 1,000 lawyers demonstrated, demanding an inquiry to an alleged case of court fixing. At a Bersih rally in the northeastern state of Terengganu, two people were seriously injured in September when police opened fire to disperse rioters.

On Saturday, the demonstrators marched towards the Sultan’s palace to hand over a letter, pleading with the monarch to exercise influence over the government to intervene in the electoral system to remove phantom voters from the electoral rolls, use indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, allow equal access to the media for all parties and abolish postal voting.

They wore yellow clothes, “the colour for citizen action worldwide and the colour for the press-freedom movement” and chanted “Allahu akbar [God is greatest]” and “Reformasi.” The latter was the same call made in the last major demonstrations in 1998.

The protest was broken up by police using water cannon and tear gas. 245 people were detained but the police later released them. Mizan Zainal Abidin, the Sultan of Terengganu, who currently holds the rotating kingship (known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong) is said to be sympathetic to the protestors’ demand. His representative received the petition from the protestors.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who was at a party conference, told the party members, “They are challenging the patience of the people who want the country to be peaceful and stable. That is what they are challenging, not me.” On Monday (12 November), Prime Minister Abdullah further condemned the demonstrations, saying “Obviously, the action was tantamount to dragging the institution of the monarchy, and the king, into politics.” 

The protests come at the tail-end of the UMNO annual meeting. Ironically, while the protestors called for reforms to the national electoral system, the lead political party of the ruling coalition is preoccupied with its upcoming internal party elections.

The three key vice-president positions are likely to be hotly contested. At least four possible candidates have been cited. The winners of these positions will be in good positions to dish out lucrative projects and contracts. Political analyst, Mohammad Agus Yusoff of the National University of Malaysia said, “Umno’s elections are very significant because their leaders are going to be national leaders. When you talk about Malay politics, you talk about patronage politics.”

This focus on patronage does not augur well for UMNO. Already, UMNO is likely to lose votes due to the unpopular but necessary move of scrapping of fuel subsidies. Prime Minister Abdullah said at the closing of the UMNO assembly, “We will structure it so that for those who need it, we will give an appropriate level of subsidies. The rest can pay, it’s not that they cannot afford it.”

If UMNO and Abdullah cannot get their act together, more discontent is likely to ensure. The organisers of the Saturday demonstrations warned of more protests to come. The former deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim told Reuters, “I think this [the demonstrations on Saturday] is a major success in the expression of public sentiment against fraudulent practices in the elections…We will have to persist in this campaign to send a message to the government that people are tired of this kind of fraud.”

Mr Ronnie Liu, a senior leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) was more direct in his warning saying, “Saturday’s rally was only the beginning.”

The editorial of Singapore’s Straits Times made an unusual plea to the Malaysian population to get behind Prime Minister Abdullah. The editorial urged Abdullah and UMNO to reinforce “multiracial collaborative system of governance” and manage not only the polarisation of racial issues but also to tackle corruption and strengthen law enforcement. It also said, “Datuk Seri Abdullah's call for a reinforcing of Malaysianness should be heeded by all sections of the population.”  (12 November 2007)

Sources:

PM: Rally a move to draw monarchy into politics (New Straits Times, 12 November 2007)

Time draws nigh to scrap fuel subsidies (Business Times Singapore, 12 November 2007)

Opposition: Saturday’s rally just the beginning (Straits Times, 12 November 2007)

Abdullah faced with rising tide of hostility Young, poor Malays swell protest ranks (South China Morning Post, 12 November 2007)

Malaysian police detained 245 people after thousands rallied for electoral reforms (Associated Press, 11 November 2007)

UPDATE 4-Malaysia police use water cannon at Anwar rally (Reuters, 10 November 2007)

Urgent plea goes out in KL (Straits Times, 10 November 2007)

Lobbying begins for top party positions (Straits Times, 10 November 2007)

KL to restructure fuel subsidies based on needs (Straits Times, 10 November 2007)

Govt warning to organisers to call off mass rally (Straits Times, 10 November 2007)