Last weekend, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the centre of Kuala Lumpur to demand clean and free elections. Malaysia’s ruling coalition, which has dominated the country since independence, has a history of fraud, intimidation and other thuggery at the polls. The Bersih rallies (Bersih, meaning ‘clean’, is the nickname for the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) were non-violent, but the government struck back with brutal force. The police attacked the demonstrators with batons, water cannon and tear gas, killing at least one and putting many in hospital, including the leader of the political opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, who was photographed with obvious wounds to his head and legs. More than 1500 people were arrested.
The government, which likes to describe Malaysia as moderate and democratic, an example to other developing nations, was badly tarnished. Its implausible claim that the rally was fomented by the United States didn’t help. The Malaysian government controls the traditional media but, as in the Middle East, a new generation of bloggers, Tweeters, and Facebook-users were able to sidestep the censors and spread news of the rally and crackdown.
Some of them took the protests – the movement is known in some quarters as the Hibiscus Uprising, after Malaysia’s national flower – as a sign that the Arab Spring may be spreading to South-East Asia. But the likelihood of change in the near term is pretty slim. The political establishment is still very powerful and, unlike in much of the Middle East, has significant support among the urban middle classes, who have been the main beneficiaries of its liberal, high-growth economic policies of recent years, not to mention the affirmative action campaigns that have favoured ethnic Malays. The government is planning counter-demonstrations to the Bersih protests, and expects a high turn-out.