With the fifth iteration of Bersih set to hit the streets in 14 days, the natural cynic can only ask one thing: does it really make a difference?
After all, there’s that oft-quoted saying that’s usually falsely attributed to Einstein that goes, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Or is this a case where persistence will triumph and something will actually change?
To know, this is a summary the past 4 rallies, their demands and their immediate after-effects. One question that we should think about before taking to the streets to join such rallies: Did these marches do what they’d set out to accomplish?
1. The First Bersih (2007)
On October 22, 2007 the rally took to the streets to make these 4 demands:
- A thorough cleanup of the electoral roll
- The use of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting
- The abolition of postal voting for military and police personnel
- Fair access to the mass media for all parties
This was when they decided on the iconic yellow as the theme colour for the rally.
Before the actual rally, the government reaction was not welcoming. The Prime Minister then, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said, “They are challenging the patience of the rakyat who want this country to be peaceful and stable. That is what they are challenging, not me.”
Water cannons and tear gas canisters were fired at the crowd, estimated to be a group of around 30,000 to 40,000 people. Around 34 participants were arrested, but released later that night.
Analysis after believes that this rally stirred up previously dormant voters in time for the March 8, 2008 general election. For the first time in history, BN lost their two-thirds majority and five states in the Peninsular. Subsequently, BN recaptured one of the states gained by the opposition, Perak.
It should be noted that this organisers of this first rally are unaffiliated to the later events, though certainly this was the inspiration and spark for what came next.
2. Bersih 2.0: Walk for Democracy (2011)
This time round, Bersih was organised by a non-partisan coalition of NGOs and held on 9th July 2011.
BERSIH 2.0’s eight demands for clean and fair elections were:
- Clean the electoral roll
- Reform postal ballot
- Use indelible ink
- Minimum 21 days campaign period
- Free and fair access to media
- Strengthen public institutions
- Stop corruption
- Stop dirty politics
The committee took this up all the way to the Agong and announced that they would accept the Government’s offer of a stadium to hold the rally.
However, the permit application to hold the rally at the Merdeka Stadium was rejected. Furthermore, a few days before the rally, there was a lockdown in the city. Police also released a list of 91 individuals, including the main organisers, barring them from entering Kuala Lumpur.
A reported 50,000 people still managed to make their way into the city despite the lockdown, and the police response was immediate, and what some may consider excessive. Tear gas and water cannons were fired into the grounds of and at Tung Shin Hospital, protesters were herded into small areas while being sprayed with tear gas and 1667 people were arrested, including key BERSIH 2.0 leaders and opposition figures.
Globally, Malaysians overseas also took to the streets in peaceful rallies in 32 cities all over the world.
In August 2011, a Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform was announced by Prime Minister Najib Razak and established.
3. Bersih 3: Duduk Bantah (2012)
Held on April 28, 2012, this rally also wanted to push for electoral reform. Yet again, the roads leading into the city were blocked by the police.
This time, the call was to have a peaceful sit-in, also known as “Duduk Bantah”. Their demands?
- Resignation of the existing Electoral Commission
- Implementation of the 8 earlier demands before the 13th general election
- Observation of the 13th general election by international observers
Participation this year soared with Global BERSIH solidarity gatherings held in 85 cities around the world. An estimated 250,000 people participated in the Bersih 3 rally locally and worldwide.
The police response was to fire a reported 900 tear gas canisters as protesters tried to leave the area. 512 people were arrested, and according to Bersih 2.0, at least 70 people were badly beaten up by unidentified police officers.
However, the behaviour of the protesters was also called out, with reports of protesters attacking and overturning a police car. 20 police officers were also allegedly wounded by clashes with protesters.
The Chairman of the Bersih committee at the time, Ambiga Sreenevasan shared what she felt were Bersih’s achievements thus far in an interview, “Malaysians are much more clued in about the electoral process and there is, without doubt, heightened awareness amongst Malaysians about the need for electoral reform.”
4. Bersih 4 (2015)
Bersih 4 called for 10 institutional reforms, which were simplified down to 5 demands:
- Clean elections
- Clean government
- The right to dissent
- Protect parliamentary democracy
- Save the economy
The number of people who gathered that year is the subject of heavy debate, with various sources going as low as 20,000 to as high as 500,000.
What everyone did agree on was that this rally was calmer, with no use of force by the police. It even ended at midnight on 31st August 2015 with the singing of Negaraku.
However, in terms of achieving what it set out to do, Bersih 4 was probably the most heavily criticised. An analysis by Malaysia Kini concluded, “Bersih 4 failed to achieve its goal of regime change but more importantly the organisers also overestimated their influence and misread the public mood. This resulted in a rally that lacked both the requisite quantity as well as quality (the right ethnic mix) thus severely compromising its own case.”
We’ve addressed some of the complaints against Bersih 4 here, but now it leads us to the next question.
What Comes Now?
Three months about, Bersih 2.0 announced Bersih 5.
Their 5 demands are:
- Clean elections
- Clean government
- Strengthen parliamentary democracy
- Right to dissent
- Empowering Sabah and Sarawak
After looking at Bersih’s impact since the very first rally, the question we should ask: Is turning up on the streets once in a while really going to have much of an impact? Arguably, the 4th installment of Bersih was a dud. It might have even backfired on the organisers, as stated above.
Now that awareness has finally been spread, are these protests the way forward for us?
Last year, we wrote about considering our reasons carefully before joining the crowd. Back then, the worry was that people would join in just for the hype, for the rock concert-feel.
This year, the hype is definitely not what it once was. Could it be rally fatigue, or, are we waking up to the futility of the method? With the next rally about to happen in just 2 weeks, we have to ask ourselves, is this the best use of our time and resources?
Of course, the 4th Bersih rally was just a little over a year ago. It might be premature to hope for long-lasting change just from that. We do need to consider though, is this rally going the be a push in the direction that the citizens of Malaysia want?
We’ll have to see.
Feature Image Credit: Bersih.org