Kuala Lumpur- The tussle between the Malaysian authorities and electoral reform advocacy group Bersih over the venue for a protest on Saturday has reached an impasse, despite both sides having met over the issue yesterday.
Bersih has refused to give in to the government’s demand that it should hold the rally at the nearby Stadium Merdeka, instead of Dataran Merdeka, which is also called Merdeka Square. Both are historically significant sites.
“We will carry on with Merdeka Square simply because of its accessibility to public transport, and it’s easier to move around there,” Maria Chin Abdullah, one of the group’s leaders, told The Straits Times yesterday. “Also, we cannot simply change the venue at the last minute. It will cause more confusion.”
Kuala Lumpur Mayor Ahmad Fuad Ismail has warned that the authorities will take action against protesters, expected to be in the thousands, including evicting them from the field if they turn up for their sit-in protest.
“We are ready. We won’t allow them to go to Merdeka Square,” he said at a press conference yesterday after meeting leaders of the coalition, which groups more than 80 civil organizations.
In Singapore, police have rejected an application submitted two weeks ago by Malaysians in the country to hold a peaceful sit-in at the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park on Saturday. Foreigners who wish to use the venue for political causes have to seek a permit from the police.
Malaysians in Singapore had originally intended to sit at the park for two hours on Saturday to show solidarity with those attending the rally in Kuala Lumpur. They have now decided to move their event to Johor Baru.
Since announcing the second rally in a year to demand that the government probe alleged discrepancies in the 12.6-million electoral roll, Bersih has been at loggerheads with the authorities, which are eager to keep protesters off the streets but reluctant to get tough, fearing a backlash during the general election.
The last rally in July last year was put down by the government with tear gas and water cannon. But it resulted in the setting up of a parliamentary committee to improve the election system.
The committee’s final report released on April 3 was slammed by Bersih as failing to address the problems in the electoral roll.
The first Bersih rally in November 2007, which drew thousands of protesters to the city centre, was seen as a factor in unprecedented losses for governing coalition Barisan Nasional in elections called a few months later.
The current stand-off between Bersih and the authorities has been marked by a series of actions by City Hall to evict students and activists, who have been camping on the Merdeka Square field since April 14, in a version of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The authorities have sought in the last few days to deny any group the use of the field, including cordoning off a large area with metal barricades and refusing to give Bersih permission to hold its rally there on Saturday.
At dawn on Tuesday, city enforcement officers evicted dozens of university students and activists from the field, confiscated their tents and charged one student with obstructing a city officer from performing his duties. Four others have been arrested for trying to set up new tents at the field after the eviction.
The battle of wills between the authorities and Bersih has been intensified by fresh criticism of the passing of a law last Thursday that critics said made the election process less transparent.
According to the Act, the names of printers or publishers are not required on election posters and banners. Critics say this will lead to more defamatory or inflammatory statements for which no one can be held accountable.
“Basically, the commission has removed safeguards and allowed for more possibility of cheating,” said Edmund Bon, a lawyer for the Malaysia Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights.