The ‘Red Rally’ for democratic reforms in Sarawak on Saturday has won the support of election reform coalition Bersih 2.0 and has drawn – predictably enough – police scrutiny.
Bersih 2.0 had invited two leading ‘Red Rally’ organisers from the Movement for Change Sarawak (MoCS) – leader Francis Siah and Kuala Lumpur co-ordinator Ronald Sia – to its steering committee meeting last Thursday.
“We were very pleased that Francis and Ronald were able to attend the NGO meeting and share their experiences. Much of what they shared with us sounded so familiar and I hope they were able to draw courage from knowing that they are not alone in this endeavour,” Bersih 2.0 chairperson Ambiga Sreenavasan told Malaysiakini.
The NGO coalition had received reports of electoral fraud in Sarawak in April’s state assembly election and last May’s Sibu by-election.
The coalition, Ambiga explained, is also concerned with the disenfranchisement of many Sarawakians living and working in Peninsular Malaysia, because they are unable to return to vote in Sarawak.
Bersih has called on the Election Commission to save the postal vote from the swamp of alleged ballot-stuffing, clean it up and offer it to all voters living away from home. Among beneficiaries from such a move would be an estimated one million Malaysian citizens studying or working abroad.
Tens of thousands of Sarawakians have been driven to seek employment in the Klang Valley and Johor, thanks to the seizure of their native customary land by well-connected logging and plantation companies, and by dismal employment prospects at home. In the recent Sarawak election, most could not afford to return to vote.
Ambiga noted that Bersih 2.0 remains in touch with civil society in Sarawak, including MoCS. Bersih had initiated a forum in Sarawak before the April polls, on land rights and other pressing social issues.
“We felt it was important that all Malaysians became aware of the situation in Sarawak as we all have a shared destiny,” Ambiga said.
Ambiga contested the conventional wisdom that most Sarawakians lack political education and drive, since they derive most of their information from the tightly-controlled mainstream media.
“Although the general population may have been less politically aware before, this in my view is changing,” she ventured.
“In this journey to greater political awareness, I hope the people of Sarawak will support the efforts of (the MoCS) for a better Sarawak and a better Malaysia.”
There were echoes of this assertion in Ambiga’s remarks in an interview, published yesterday in the New York Times, that the campaign for electoral reform has become a “true citizens’ movement, because the citizens have taken ownership of Bersih”.
Ambiga expressed regret that she will not be able to attend the ‘Red Rally’ because of the Taib Mahmud administration’s ban on her entry into the state. She confirmed she will file an appeal against the decision of the High Court not to allow her to initiate a judicial review of the locking out of Bersih 2.0 activists.
“I would have liked to be there…we wish (the MoCS) all the best and salute their courage and commitment.”
Ambiga said the MoCS have made it “very clear” that the rally will be a peaceful expression of public opinion and that she hopes “the authorities will facilitate this peaceful rally”.
She welcomed the MoCS campaign against political corruption, calling corruption a “major scourge” in the electoral and political system.
“The tragedy is that those who have the power to act, close an eye and refuse to act. In our view the Election Commission must take primary responsibility for corruption and all other offences under the Elections Offences Act,” she said.
“What is the point in having legislation that deals with corruption in elections if no one is prepared to enforce it? It shows the lack of respect for the laws of this country, even by those in authority…this failure to act against corruption is a dereliction of duty.”
Francis will try to convince Sarawak Commissioner of Police Mortadza Nazarene, during a meeting arranged this morning, that the rally deserves a police permit. The MoCS has applied for police approval, but has received conflicting answers.
The MoCS says the police had given a verbal assurance they would be allowed to demonstrate if they stayed in one place, and if they applied using a registered entity.
After the MoCS jumped through these hoops, the Kuching police chief then denied any such promise had been made. Bersih 2.0 had been forced to endure a similar charade before its groundbreaking rally on July 9 in Kuala Lumpur.
Francis (striped shirt) returned to Kuching on Monday, to prepare for Saturday’s rally at the Cenotaph. He was met at the airport by five uniformed police officers. They handed him a letter demanding his presence at the state police headquarters today to give a statement, at the same time as the Commissioner of Police had agreed to meet him.
He said he would abide by his earlier demand that the police first call in Taib to make a statement, in order to investigate allegations of corruption against Taib, before he would do likewise.
“I have nothing to say until I’ve been informed that the police (have) also recorded a statement from Taib following the police report I lodged against him for corruption, money laundering and abuse of power on March 13,” Francis insisted.
Taib has been discomfited by widely reported allegations of land grabs in Sarawak, and a vast family property fortune spanning four continents.
He faces a sticky choice. He may decide that clamping down on the ‘Red Rally’ may backfire, just as the police action against peaceful Bersih 2.0 demonstrators has damaged premier Najib Abdul Razak’s image abroad and at home.
Taib’s supporters may argue that the Red Rally might lead to chaos, as a demonstration against the police shooting of a cab driver in London led to uncontrollable rioting over the past three days.
This would carry little weight: the same argument was used by Najib’s ministers before Bersih 2.0, but the demonstrators were peaceful, while reports of police brutality were widely disseminated.
If, on the other hand, Taib allows the police to issue a permit, he might be embarrassed by media coverage of the event. The harm to Taib’s image may translate to more votes against ruling coalition candidates during the upcoming parliamentary election.
Regardless of the outcome of delicate negotiations with the police, the MoCS have announced they will proceed with Saturday’s protest, in defiance of the chief minister – even if the police impose a ban.