DIN MERICAN: THE MALAYSIAN DJ BLOGGER
I blog, therefore I am–Chris Bowers
Malaysian People's Court
Anwar's civil disobedience and the next election.
The Malaysian government charged opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim this week for illegal protests urging electoral reform. Considering Mr. Anwar's past legal travails, having twice been tried on trumped-up charges of sodomy and twice exonerated, one might assume this is another politically motivated prosecution.
But this case is different. Mr. Anwar was practicing civil disobedience, and now he is paying the price. The real verdict will come at the ballot box in the next general election, expected later this year, when voters will get to decide whether Prime Minister Najib Razak's political reforms are proceeding at an appropriate pace, or Mr. Anwar is right to press for faster change.
Prosecutors accuse Mr. Anwar and two of his party members of taking part in a street protest last month, which is illegal under the new Peaceful Assembly Act. He also allegedly violated a court order when he encouraged demonstrators to enter an area that was off limits. The prosecution says it is enforcing the law without fear or favor. Mr. Anwar says he's innocent and that the charges are "politically motivated."
Behind these claims is a contest for the hearts and minds of Malaysian voters. The demonstration in question, called "Bersih 3.0" after the Malay word for clean, was the third in five years that brought NGOs and opposition parties together to demand an end to electoral fraud. And like the last two rallies, this one ended in violence, mostly from the police side.
Most significantly, the public reaction to these spectacles has been different from what many expected. The ruling United Malays National Organization thought it would rally its base by repressing last year's protest, but Bersih 2.0 created such a storm of censure—at home and abroad—that it forced Mr. Najib to push political reforms. He trumpeted the Peaceful Assembly Act, passed late last year, as giving protesters more freedom.
However, the law is only slightly more permissive than its predecessor. Demonstrators no longer need police permits, but the act contains two serious restrictions: protesters are limited to designated arenas and can't take to the streets. That's the basis for the charges against Mr. Anwar and his associates this week.
Last month's Bersih rally occurred because many urban and middle-class Malaysians are unhappy with Kuala Lumpur's half-hearted reforms. Mr. Najib is changing laws—including the notoriously repressive Internal Security Act that allows detention without charges—but he's replacing them with piecemeal improvements that still include draconian measures.
While Mr. Najib deserves credit for his reforms, the opposition also has good reasons to criticize them as inadequate. The real question is whether Malaysian society is best served by a faster pace of change and the opposition's confrontational tactics. If Mr. Anwar wants to practice civil disobedience, he can't pretend to be innocent at the same time.
A more straightforward way to convince the public that the Peaceful Assembly Act is an unjust law would be to plead guilty and pay the fine ahead of the election. Both sides have to learn to put their faith in the electorate rather than the courts.