During the mammoth protest on July 9, several dozen Sarawakians, led by state PKR leader Baru Bian and PKR assemblyperson for Batu Lintang See Chee How (below left), took their first steps at a mass national rally, and drew their first acrid breaths of tear gas.
“We plan to hold public dialogues to discuss the Bersih rally, and the electoral reforms our country deserves,” See told Malaysiakini. “We’ll start this Saturday. Bersih has called for Malaysians to wear yellow every Saturday, and we’ll work to build awareness of the need for clean and fair elections.
“Everyone is excited. There has been a very encouraging response to the rally among members of the public I’ve talked to, and in the social media, including on Facebook.
“People used to be intimidated, and were worried about showing dissent in public,” he went on. “But in Kuching, and in several other towns in Sarawak, there were gatherings, in coffeeshops and other places, on July 9 to show support (for Bersih).
“As Malaysiakini said, Bersih helped with the ‘eradication of fear’: Sarawakians are not so afraid of these demonstrations any more, and do not think they’re negative,” he said.
Both the authorities and the Bersih coalition appear to agree that the July 9 protesters for clean elections had marched peacefully and had shunned violence.
However, Umno ministers alleged demonstrators had “provoked” police. Ministers frantically denied allegations that the police had been abusive, and had fired tear gas into Tung Shin Hospital in central Kuala Lumpur.
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak expressed relief that the rally did not cause “serious harm”, and praised the police for “monitoring” the rally well. The police attempted to mend public opinion by announcing they had laid out a food buffet spread for arrested protesters, though repeated volleys of tear gas and water cannon laced with noxious chemicals may not have whetted the prisoners’ appetite.
In contrast, rally participants, as well as independent journalists and human rights groups, have condemned the edgy authorities for police brutality and a disproportionate clampdown. The spin in the mainstream government-owned media has failed to dent the credibility of word-of-mouth testimonies and images spread byFacebook and YouTube.
Official denials of human rights violations have fuelled anger. There was intense public attention focused on the funeral of protester Baharudin Ahmad, a 59 year old taxi driver. Baharudin’s death, in the midst of police action and tear gas, heightened public dissatisfaction with official versions of the attempted suppression of the rally.
Kuala Lumpur acting police chief Amar Singh’s claim that Baharudin had succumbed to a heart attack has been widely seen as overstepping his authority, given that the post-mortem report has not been made public, nor has an inquest been carried out into Baharudin’s death.
A rebellious history
Public rallies in Sarawak were organised by left-wing political movements in opposition to the formation of Malaysia in the early 1960s, but the democratic space in the state has closed down rapidly since then.
Although Sarawak was spared the ethnic violence of May 13, 1969, the fear of public expression of political feeling has grown over the years.
In the past three decades, Sarawak has witnessed isolated Penan, Iban and other rural indigenous communities’ protests against the loss of their land to logging and plantation interests. These blockades have taken the form of a few branches laid across timber or oil palm access roads, with villagers standing calmly behind them.
The protesters have been attacked by thugs hired by logging and plantation companies, as well as by the paramilitary Police Field Force. Deaths of Penan protesters from police brutality and indiscriminate use of tear gas have been reported.
Mass arrests, aimed at intimidating native protestors, have been common: over a hundred native protestors, for example, were detained without trial in Sarawak at the same time as the 1987 ISA Operation Lalang sweep, while media attention was fixed on Kuala Lumpur.
For 30 years, Sarawakians have been cowed under the rule of Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. Besides the land rights skirmishes, few other Sarawakians have made any show of civil disobedience, since the surrender of the last remaining communist rebels in the 1980s.
‘May 13 ghost is buried’
See, a human rights lawyer, thinks public opinion is changing, largely because of the peaceful Bersih 2.0 protesters.
In particular, he feels the multiethnic participants at Bersih 2.0, displaying mutual support and cooperation, will finally lay the ghost of May 13, 1969 to rest. For more than 40 years, Malaysians have been threatened with the prospect of ethnic violence, if protesters are allowed to assemble.
“Nobody was talking about May 13 – definitely not. We were talking more about why we don’t have any public demonstrations like that in Sarawak,” he smiled.
“We were (marching) mostly in Petaling Street and Dataran Maybank,” he recalled. “The Chinese participants made up about 40 percent (of the protesters). This was a very good sign. I saw encouraging scenes of Malays, Chinese and others together. Bersih has brought out something that transcends race or political party.
See explained that there were four Sarawakians in his group of protesters arrested, among the 1,700 or so detainees.
“But they didn’t mind, especially because they were released without conditions,” he pointed out. “Those arrested were all natives from kampungs (villages) – they were all excited and proud of the march.
This shows natives are also willing to come out (to demonstrate) for issues of national importance.
“Education is important,” See emphasised. “We’ll build on this.”
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia‘. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org