From friends to foes: Heavy police presence, is PH turning their back on Bersih?

From allies to uncertain ground



09 Feb 2024 11:53am
Photo for illustration purpose only. Edited via Canva. - Photo credit: Bersih FB
Photo for illustration purpose only. Edited via Canva. - Photo credit: Bersih FB

NEARLY two decades ago, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) began its campaign for electoral integrity.

After years of advocacy, it achieved notable successes, including the removal of former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and the call for governmental reforms.

During the early years, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the then-opposition leader, emerged as a key figure in Bersih's efforts to challenge the ruling government.

Over 19 years, Bersih's struggle also symbolised a fight for Anwar's release from prison, with the hope that he would lead Malaysia towards a future marked by reform and integrity.

This period saw a variety of activities, from rallies and street protests to peaceful gatherings, both in physical spaces and online, aimed at realising their goals.

At that time, Anwar and his associates were also vocal about the police presence at the rallies held as well as the arrests of its supporters, citing freedom of speech and human rights as a basis for the police not to act in such a way.

Now, it is not a secret that in such events, especially when it involves the opposition party, there would be plainclothes police personnel or Special Branch officers collecting notes of who was there and what was uttered.

Fast forward to today, as Anwar, who was an ally, has now become the country’s number one politician – one would have thought that Anwar’s administration would allow freedom of speech and clean reform.

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However, two days ago, a heavy police presence was spotted at Bersih’s scheduled press conference at its office in Petaling Jaya, which raised concerns among activists.

The press conference aimed to address Najib’s pardon decision as well as #Reformasi100percent saw two police trucks and at least 10 policemen stationed around the building.

"Heavy police presence at Bersih office following a press conference on Najib's pardon and #Reformasi100percent demands.

"Is intimidation really the message that the Madani government wants to send?” Bersih said in X, while tagging Home Minister Datuk Seri Saifuddin Nasution’s official account.

The post received widespread criticism, with many stating that ‘Reformasi’ is dead and condemning the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition for intimidating the activists.

Human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) had also condemned the heightened police presence, calling it a blatant act of intimidation and a departure from the principles of Reformasi.

"Ten police officers, two police trucks and a number of police motorcycles stationed outside Bersih's office for a mere press conference calling for faithful implementation of the long-promised reform agenda.

"This is not upholding public order – on the contrary, it is sheer, condemnable intimidation," Suaram executive director Sevan Doraisamy said in a statement.

He further questioned if this means that anyone who disagrees with the Pardons Board's ruling could end up having their posts removed, their social media accounts watched, or even a Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 investigation.

Sevan also questioned whether Saifuddin or Anwar himself is aware of the police's act of monitoring the press conference, adding another layer of concern to the situation.

Through these tactics, Sevan claimed that the government has committed a triple betrayal: failing to defend its fight against corruption and justice, contravening its duty to uphold the basic human rights of all, and regressing current painstaking efforts in fostering accountability.

However, the police had their say. The police defended their presence as routine, aiming to ensure public safety.

Petaling Jaya district police chief Assistant Commissioner Fakhrudin Abdul Hamid clarified that the deployment was unrelated to Bersih's event.

Nonetheless, this explanation has not quelled concerns among activists and the media familiar with Bersih's history.

Saifuddin has "delegated" response duties to Fakhrudin (at least for now), probably due to potential bureaucratic delays in addressing these concerns.

Despite calls for clarification, Saifuddin's silence has led to speculation about the government's stance on police actions.

This situation points to a political reality: alliances shift once power is attained, with former reform advocates now in government positions potentially distancing themselves from their activist roots.

Some even see this as a "metamorphosis of the worst kind" where politicians used Bersih for convenience but abandoned them in power.

Politicians' silence can be interpreted as support for the police action, further eroding public trust.

With numerous reforms pending, the question remains: are Bersih and Malaysians still fighting for the same ideals? Will the promised "Reformasi" truly benefit the people, and will freedom of expression be upheld?

Remember, there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, just permanent interests.