Movement for Change Sarawak (MoCS) leader Francis Siah (left in photo) has toldMalaysiakini that the Red Rally will not yield to “overwhelming odds”, referring to condemnation by Sarawak’s Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud.
Taib has expressed outrage that MoCS had urged him to retire. The chief minister argued that he had won a clear mandate as state leader, while Siah is not even an elected representative.
Taib, 75, has ignored similar calls to quit from leaders of the ruling national coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN), including Umno’s Khairy Jamaluddin.
Taib continues to enjoy startling, self-proclaimed wealth, after three decades in power.
His reign as chief minister, a Malaysian record for length of tenure, has been marred by an enormous portfolio of documents alleging corruption, displayed by his opponents on Sarawak Report and other websites.
In response to Taib’s outburst, Siah observed that the MoCS is a loose civil society grouping that represents only the will of Sarawakians for good governance.
“It’s not as if that I will be taking over as chief minister once MoCS (manages) to oust Taib Mahmud,” he pointed out sardonically.
“I’m a nobody with absolutely no political ambition. I’m just a Sarawakian who cares deeply for my home state.
“Once Taib is gone, I will probably retire to the countryside and enjoy some farming and writing, or be a fisherman.”
Glasnost in Sarawak?
The initial demand of the Aug 13 protest was for the chief minister to leave office.
Taib had promised to do so after “two or three years”, in the heat of the state election six months ago, but he has made similar, unfulfilled pledges in the past.
The theme of the protest has now been downplayed to a ‘Walk for Democracy and Reform’.
This is “less confrontational and more civil”, particularly as the Red Rally will fall within the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Siah explained.
Even so, the open challenge to Taib’s dominance of Sarawak’s politics is clear.
Taib has been in firm control since his only real test in 1987. He was nearly toppled by a dissident faction, but finally outmanoeuvred the pact of the indigenous-based Parti Bansa Dayak Sarawak and Permas, a vehicle set up by his uncle, and predecessor as chief minister, Abdul Rahman Ya’kub.
Abdul Rahman (right) took the unusual step of publishing secret lists in his possession, detailing huge, lucrative timber licences awarded by Taib to his own family members. But Taib survived the disclosures, and he and his uncle were eventually reconciled.
The latest round of allegations of cronyism against Taib, before the state election in April this year, left him bruised – the BN lost 45 percent of the popular vote – but still standing. The BN retained a two-thirds majority in the state legislature.
Nonetheless, we witnessed campaign events notable for open defiance of Taib’s iron rule, including a giant political rally in Stutong, Kuching, on the eve of the election.
Sarawakians were astonished to see 30,000 people, mostly from theFacebook generation, and dressed mainly in red at the opposition rally, the largest crowd in the history of Sarawak’s elections.
A human wall of red prevented policemen from clambering onstage and silencing the speakers.
To the credit of the Sarawak police, they negotiated with the rally organisers, and backed off.
The similar, calm refusal of Bersih 2.0 protesters to be cowed by far more aggressive Kuala Lumpur police tactics on July 9, has also boosted hopes for more open, grassroots-level, voluntary political participation.
“So far, red T-shirts have not been banned, otherwise Manchester United or Liverpool fans will be very disappointed,” Siah said whimsically, referring to arrests of Bersih 2.0 supporters wearing yellow T-shirts.
“This is Kuching. This is Sarawak. In general, we are certainly more reserved and timid than our fellow Malaysians in the peninsula. There were reports that only about 100 Sarawakians went to the Bersih rally,” he noted.
“I’m not sure how the Bersih (2.0) event will impact the Aug 13 walk for democracy and reform, but it was certainly an awakening for Sarawakians, too.”
Whatever the turnout is at the Red Rally, Siah will feel vindicated that he has not backed down, in the face of furious opposition from Taib and his supporters.
Working on a police permit
Siah revealed that the MoCS remains hopeful the rally will receive a police permit.
Bersih 2.0 organisers had hoped for police permission too, but were disappointed.
Siah said five police officers in Kuching had interviewed an individual applying for the permit on behalf of MoCS.
According to Siah, the police had “verbally agreed” to issue a permit provided the protesters do not march, but hold a stationary gathering at one location.
“They even mentioned that we could use the Padang Merdeka if we want to,” he said.
“But our choice is the Museum grounds because the Cenotaph is located there. There will be a wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph to honour the heroes of Sarawak.”
The police also insisted, Siah went on, that the MoCS must apply using a registered organisation. The MoCS are trying to cooperate.
“My only fear is that (the police) may eventually bow to political pressure from certain leaders in the state government. I’m hoping that the new Sarawak Police Commissioner (Mortadza Nazarene) is his own man.” Siah said.
Siah expects the rally to be peaceful. He does not appear intimidated by the prospect of being arrested or physically harmed himself.
“Although I’ve been warned that there are ruthless people around, I still have faith and trust that Kuchingites and Sarawakians are peace-loving and non-violent people.”
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