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Rainbow rally lifts opposition in Malaysia

Asia Times - January 14, 2013

Anil Netto, Kuala Lumpur In a run-up to highly anticipated national elections, an estimated 100,000 people supporting the political opposition thronged Merdeka Stadium in the national capital for a rally organizers referred to as a "people's uprising".

Signaling a potential shift in government tack, unlike previous rallies where the call had been for reform of election rules and procedures, the event was not suppressed by security officials.

The rally was laden with historical symbolism, with opposition politicians likening their campaign to unseat the ruling United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), which has held power with coalition partners since independence from colonial rule in 1957, to the country's break from its colonial masters. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim bellowed "Merdeka", or independence, exactly seven times during the mass gathering.

His rally cries harkened to Malaysia's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman's seven emotional chants during the official handover ceremony from British rule on August 31, 1957, at the same stadium, which was constructed specially for the announcement of Independence.

Never before had authorities allowed the opposition to stage a rally at the historic venue, though previous attempts had been made. The stadium, like Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, had always been off-limits for all but officially sanctioned events.

A Bersih 3.0 rally calling for free and fair elections held last April was violently suppressed by police, many of them without official identification tags. Police conduct during that suppression operation has been the focus of an ongoing inquiry by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam). Security officials cracked down similarly on Bersih rallies in 2007 and 2011.

Whether the change in tack in police management of the rally was part of a government strategy to validate the upcoming polls is still hard to gauge. Elections must be called by April and held by June of this year and are expected to be the most hotly contested ever in Malaysia. Many analysts now expect snap elections to be held in March.

UMNO has ruled the country consecutively since independence, but its ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost its coveted two-thirds majority in parliament at the 2008 polls. Heavy-handed police action against a Bersih rally calling for electoral reforms and a rally organized by Indian Malaysians, both held in November 2007, is believed to have contributed to significant electoral reverses for the ruling coalition.

BN leaders say that the government's softer, non-confrontational approach to the rally is due to the success of the government's transformation plan and the new Peaceful Assembly Act 2012, which does not require permits but lays down many restrictions for such rallies, including a ban on children below the age of 12 attending. BN supporters had a field day on the micro-blogging site Twitter attaching photographs of what they claimed were children accompanying their parents to the rally. The weekend rally was different in significant ways from last year's suppressed Bersih rally. While the Bersih rally was organized by a civil society coalition of mostly independent groups, the "people's uprising", or #KL112, rally was largely organized by opposition parties, though Bersih supporters in their trademark yellow shirts also participated.

The stadium was bathed in a rainbow of colors as people wore T-shirts of various hues representing an assortment of grassroots causes and movements. Apart from the yellow of Bersih, there were participants garbed in the green shirts of the Himpunan Hijau (Green Gathering) and opponents of a government-backed, rare-earth refinery built by the Lynas Corporation.

The red shirts of the Abolish Internal Security Act movement (about two dozen ISA detainees are still incarcerated despite the Act being repealed), the violet shirts of a women's group protesting against violence against women and the orange shirts of those concerned about what is happening to the state-run Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) also highlighted the range of those who turned out. Even animal rights activists rallied under the opposition's banner.

Leaders of the major opposition parties Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamic party PAS turned up along with their respective supporters, the largest band of whom were from PAS, whose members and their maroon-shirted Unit Amal (Community Welfare Unit) turned up in large numbers.

A common thread among these various groups is the aspiration for change a break from the entrenched corruption, cronyism and top-down development strategies that disregard the environment and ordinary people's livelihoods widely associated with decades of UMNO-led rule.

Hundreds of billions of ringgit in illicit money have reportedly flowed out of the country over the last decade and the feeling among many of Malaysians is that the country cannot afford another five-year term of unaccountable BN rule. While the economy has performed well amid global economic turmoil, there are medium term questions about economic direction with depleting oil reserves and stagnant industrial competitiveness.

Some said the large turnout at #KL112 reflects a repudiation of all that former premier Mahathir Mohamad represented. Though he stepped down in 2003, Mahathir continues to exert influence through his writings and public statements that back the UMNO-led status quo.

Many see the problems plaguing Malaysian society crony-driven privatizations, systemic corruption and the undermining of democratic institutions as rooted in his 22-year administration and perpetuated by his UMNO successors Abdullah Badawi and incumbent Najib Razak.

Against the inclusive rainbow spectrum gathered at the Merdeka Stadium, the ruling BN and its race-based nationalist group supporters look decidedly exclusive. Despite Najib's "1Malaysia" unity rhetoric, his coalition continues to use race and religion to appeal to UMNO's traditional ethnic Malay supporters and its ethnic Chinese and Indian sister parties.

As if to illustrate the contrast with the opposition's rainbow opposition rally, Najib addressed a mono-ethnic group of Indian Malaysians elsewhere in Kuala Lumpur while the Merdeka Stadium event was taking place. The turnout at Najib's event was estimated by the UMNO-linked New Straits Times newspaper at 15,000.

While public support for UMNO's sister parties representing minority ethnic groups appears to have waned, Najib is obviously hoping that his personal popularity with be enough to carry the BN to a simple majority at the coming election. Political fallout from an apparently corrupt French submarine procurement deal, linked perhaps to the murder of a Mongolian woman associated to one of Najib's aides, appears to be troubling the administration.

While pro-opposition sentiment may be strong in urban areas, it is difficult to gauge to what extent rural Malaysians, cut off from alternative news sources on the Internet and relying heavily on pro-government media, will switch sides to the opposition.

In some areas like the southern state of Johor, traditionally a BN stronghold, there are already signs of a slight swing in support towards the opposition. Whether similar shifts are taking place in rural areas in the countries other 12 states is still unclear. But as the weekend's wide umbrella rally indicated, the opposition's aspiration of capturing federal power no longer seems like an impossible dream.

[Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.]

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