Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tales From Another Democracy - Malaysia

A friend of mine linked me to an article on Malaysia:

It felt like the article was an expostulation against the current realities and dynamics of Indian democracy. It was about Malaysia, but the progression of events bore such strong semblance to the imbroglio of democratic politics here that it induced, besides great empathy, a great sense of disbelief.

In Malaysia recently, a coalition of political and non-governmental organizations suffered the ill-effects of great political vendetta in the form of arrests, intimidation and persecution under the ruling government.

The Bersih movement, aimed at electoral reform, comprises a vast cross-section of civil society groups and opposition political parties that have coalesced to express discontent against the electoral malpractices in the country - double-counting, manipulation of votes and restriction of access to media during campaigns. The government in 2007 extended the tenure of the incumbent chief election commissioner by a constitutional amendment. In 2007, Bersih organized large-scale demonstrations. They were not sanctioned by the government and the rallies were forcibly disrupted by the riot police.

More recently, this year, a small group of Socialist Party members were arrested whilst on their way to a Bersih meeting, and were later tried for attempting to "resurrect Communism". A poet, who is a national laureate, was interrogated by the police and told he was being investigated for sedition - based on his reading of what is clearly a wonderfully powerful and evocative poem exhorting the people to defend a fledgling democracy (see linked article). The police also illegally trespassed into Bersih office premises and detained some of its members. They arrested people on the streets wearing the printed yellow tee-shirt associated with the movement. They even unwittingly arrested a sitting member of parliament for simply wearing a yellow tee-shirt at all, one definitely without the Bersih symbol. All of the arrested civilians were told they were being charged with "unlawful assembly". (The government refused to grant the organization rally clearances.)

The overzealous repression of the Malaysian government is not unlike the authoritarian mismanagement of Indian state governments and the central government, who intermittently try to intimidate organizations that rise for the people's causes, with a groundswell of support, breaking the spine of political complacency and corruption.

The KMSS in Assam or the anti-corruption groups in Delhi are suddenly denied their clearances to hold demonstrations and rallies, and their members are threatened with police action. Today, we are forced to ask ourselves why, in the first place, it should be within the power of a ragtag clutch of discreditable politicians to grant permission to the people to assemble and meet for their democratic rights.

Ultimately, unlawful arrests and illegitimate acts of coercion fall by the wayside as the people continue to wrench their rights and freedoms away from the clenched fists of the state. The crucial fact about India and Malaysia is that we are both established democracies, and cannot be held to ransom for long.

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