Nearly a week after the Bersih 2.0 rally, the government is still in a state of denial. International media, particularly the Wall Street Journal, have accused the Najib administration of using strong arm tactics against the rally participants.
In a letter to the New York based Wall Street Journal, Wisma Putra however maintained the police crackdown on the protesters was necessary.
In an editorial “Crackdown 2.0 in Malaysia” published on July 12, WSJ described the handling of the rally as an “atmosphere of fear and repression”.
However, in response to the editorial, a senior official from Wisma Putra denied the accusation that protesters had suffered “intimidation and repression” at the hands of the government in the build up to the rally.
Ahmad Rozian, the Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary of information, blamed Bersih’s refusal to accept Najib’s offer for a larger capacity stadium had “forced” the police to act.
“Protest organisers chose to reject the prime minister’s offer of a large-capacity stadium but instead they called on supporters to assemble at a much smaller stadium ‘come what may,’ despite the fact that it was unavailable,” he said, referring to Bersih’s insistence on gathering at the historical Stadium Merdeka.
“Faced with thousands of people attempting to enter an unsuitable venue in a densely populated area, the police were forced to intervene to disperse the crowd, a task that was made more difficult by the presence of a small minority of protesters intent on violence,” he said.
Najib undermined King’s authority
Bersih had initially called off its plans to hold a mammoth street rally and accepted Najib’s offer to move its protest to a stadium in respect of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s advice that both parties negotiate over the issue of free and fair elections.
The unprecedented intervention of Tuanku Misan Zainal Abidin was seen as an attempt to defuse heightened tension that saw the mass police arrests of more than 230 Bersih supporters that included opposition lawmakers.
But when Putrajaya told the coalition of 62 NGOs to move its rally outside of the capital and refused to issue a permit to gather in Stadium Merdeka, Bersih claimed Najib had reneged on his promise and decided to defy the instruction and took to the streets on July 9.
The rally resulted in nearly 1,700 arrests, left scores injured and one, the husband of a PKR division leader dead, after police fired tear gas and water cannons in a bid to disperse the crowd.
WSJ called Putrajaya’s response to the “peaceful rally” as “brutal” while accusing Najib of undermining the King’s authority when he refused to engage and allow Bersih to hold its protest in Stadium Merdeka.
It also said Bersih’s needed to take the streets to voice its demands is testament to allegations that Malaysia under the ruling Barisan National coalition is not a “true democracy”.
Ahmad, however, shrugged off the accusation and said the electoral gains enjoyed by the opposition in the 2008 gneral election proved the country’s election system to be functioning.
“To claim that Saturday’s events mean Malaysia is not a ‘true democracy’ is simply wrong.
“As the strong performance of opposition parties in the last general election demonstrates, the ballot box remains the most powerful force in Malaysian politics”.
Putrajaya’s response to Bersih has led to widespread criticism from the international media which included influential American and British publications such as the WSJ and the Guardian, television channels (Al-Jazeera) and also top regional newspapers like the Singapore Straits Times and Jakarta Post.
Najib himself has to deflect criticism and forced to explain persistent queries on the rally in his ongoing London visit while his administration is now placed in an uncomfortable position as international opinion has helped to strengthen the opposition as BN prepares for the 13th general election.