MAY 7 — Prior to Bersih 2.0, I cautioned the organisers that we must be careful about using street demonstrations lest trouble should erupt and the government should declare an Emergency. The practice of democracy in our country is tenuous and we should be extra careful in our actions so that irresponsible parties cannot take advantage of the situation to bring chaos.
At that time, the government was not interested in engaging the Bersih organisers and the opposition, and ministers were openly contemptuous of opposition demands for a review of election practices. They even refused to let the Bersih organisers use Stadium Merdeka as the venue for the gathering. The hardliners in Umno prevailed, so Bersih 2.0 became inevitable.
Bersih 3.0 was different. I thought that both the prime minister and the home minister were far more receptive this time around. They offered suitable alternatives to Dataran Merdeka. There was an obvious change on the part of the prime minister in dealing with public issues like Bersih.
Anyone can see that he was trying to engage the public, and some of this was successful, others not so much. At least he was instrumental in the formation of the Parliamentary Select Committee that made many recommendations for reform to the Election Commission. The opposition itself accepted these recommendations.
As such, there were no threatening statements prior to Bersih 3.0 from the government and the police. Indeed, I think that the police exercised more restraint than before (until the barricades were broken, that is). I thought the organisers should have accepted the offer of an alternative venue. Had this decision been taken, there would have been no trouble and street violence. But even Bersih chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan came across as being unreasonable in her demands, much to my surprise.
I believe that the right to assemble in a peaceful way is fundamental to a democracy, especially in the demand for free and fair elections. However, we need to take into account the views of others, especially the police. The right to peaceful assembly does not mean the right to assemble anywhere we want, especially when the authorities present alternative sites that are equally accessible and suitable.
So now we are presented with a scenario that is both frightening and complex: according to the Pakatan Rakyat, they no longer trust either the police or the Election Commission. They certainly don’t trust the government. So it has become impossible for either side to engage in dialogue — each side will only harden its stance — and it seems that all parties are now looking for outright combat, not discussions and compromise.
Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim will press on with a nationwide roadshow of defiance and street power. PAS has even offered to organise Bersih 4.0. If we let things go unchecked, I believe there will be more violence and even loss of life.
We are entering a new and dangerous phase in Malaysian politics. The hawks in Umno will say to the prime minister: “Your accommodation and change are sure signs of weakness, so move over...” How can this be considered “progress” for the country?
I fully understand why DAP vice-chairman Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim and many others in the opposition are opposed to street demonstrations of the kind we have witnessed. We are from the old generation who have seen with our eyes the bloodshed and violence that can happen in this country.
We certainly want change and reform so Malaysia will be better run, with corruption and abuse of power minimised. At the same time, we ourselves must never resort to violence in our efforts to attain change and reform. This means that we must do everything possible to reduce the opportunity for the other side (the side with guns) to resort to violence as well.
It takes both sides to exercise restraint and to act responsibly. The prime minister will not be able to do this on his own — the opposition must be willing to play by the same rules.
It is election time anyway. There is no need to create a false momentum by resorting to “people power” the way the Arabs did. The people want the right to assemble and to protest but there are many who will decide to cast their votes based on who can help sort out the economic difficulties we are all facing.
The people want a stable government that can address some key bread-and-butter issues. The opposition should therefore focus on these issues and earn the support of the people without resorting to street power.
This might not be as exciting as a public demonstration but it is certainly better to be safe than sorry.
* Datuk Zaid Ibrahim is president of Parti KITA.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.