Ten years ago, on this day, five political parties and 25 NGOs came together to form the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih).
A joint communique detailing the list of electoral reforms was issued at its launch in Parliament House. Most of its 24 demands are not met until today.
However, Bersih has changed Malaysian politics and society in more than one way – way beyond what its founding members could imagine in their wildest dreams.
Firstly, Bersih has firmly put up the agenda of institutional reforms in Malaysia’s political transformation. The demands expressed in its five rallies have grown from reforms in the electoral process (Bersih 1, 2007) to cover integrity of public agencies (Bersih 2, 2011 and Bersih 3, 2012) to clean government, right of dissent and parliamentary democracy (Bersih 4, 2015) and finally to the empowerment of Sabah and Sarawak (Bersih 5, 2016).
In a nation where democratic institutions have long been eroded into formality by authoritarianism and patronage, Bersih emerges as a loud and clear cry for multi-party democracy and accountability.
Secondly, Bersih has successfully mobilised Malaysians to oppose electoral roll tampering, attain higher turnouts at the polls, monitor elections, and challenge malapportionment and gerrymandering of constituencies. At every stage of the electoral process, corrupt practices are met with the most vigorous and organised resistance ever.
Bersih equips ordinary Malaysians with political education, moral conviction and technical sophistication to reclaim democracy at every opening possible.
Thirdly, Bersih has successfully promoted the right to dissent and dismantled the culture of fear. In a country traumatised by the 1969 post-election ethnic riot, where political participation generally and street rallies specifically were once dreadful, Bersih has organised five rallies. The last two were peaceful and electrifying with more than 100,000 people in a carnival-like atmosphere.
These happened, notwithstanding the threat of violence by thugs sponsored by the ruling coalition. This year, volunteers in car convoys bridged the urban-rural information gap and brought corruption and reform into conversations in 236 towns and villages over six weekends before culminating with the Bersih 5 rally in the national capital last Saturday.
Fourthly and perhaps most importantly, as an unintended consequence, Bersih has united Malaysians across all ethnic, religious, regional and socio-economic backgrounds through the pursuit of democracy and liberties. In a country where politics is chronically presented as dirty and dangerous, and participation in public affairs deterred by communal distrust, Bersih has built real national unity through a vision of an inclusive future.
Violence posed by the police and threatened by ethnocentric thugs have unintentionally moulded inter-communal solidarity. When strangers across ethno-religious divide helped and protected one another from tear gas and water cannons, they beautifully discovered that “we went to the streets for democracy, only to find the nation”.
Last but not least, civil society is progressively empowered as Bersih transforms the country’s political landscape. In 2010, the party-civil society coalition of Bersih was succeeded by the civil-society-only coalition of Bersih 2.0. The growing strength of civil society in the reform movement has laid down a good foundation to build a mature and healthy multi-party democracy, where party-capture of state can be checked.
As we count these remarkable achievements, Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah is now held for the fifth day in solitary confinement in a cramped windowless room under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma), enacted purportedly to combat terrorism. She is detained under this draconian law which allows for detention without trial up to 28 days.
As her arrest on the eve of the Bersih 5 rally failed to prevent the rally successfully held with 120,000 participants defying roadblocks and threats, Maria is now punished with the wicked Sosma charge to punish her for the government’s humiliation at the outburst of public wrath.
This, however, will not weaken our spirit or move our direction. We will soldier on and continue to press for democracy and freedom until they flourish on the Malaysian soil. Maria and Bersih do not walk alone. We stand up for Malaysians, and Malaysians stand up for us, as in everyday of the past 10 years.
Ten years is a long journey. We thank the 2006-2010 Bersih leadership from political parties and civil society groups including Maria herself; the 2010-2013 Bersih 2.0 leadership under Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan and Pak Samad; and the 2013-2015 Bersih 2.0 leadership under Maria for leading the movement through nine turbulent years. We thank all Malaysians and international friends who have helped the Bersih cause in every possible way.
As we press on for Maria’s immediate and unconditional release, we present an ever more resolved Bersih movement to Malaysians. We are your ongoing journey to democracy and liberties. Like rivers running to the sea, nothing can stop us. We will remove all obstacles and go on.
We will pursue all institutional reforms necessary to ensure Malaysians have governments democratically voted by and accountable to them, the first of these reforms being the abolition of the draconian Sosma.
So, tonight, do celebrate our birth tonight at any of the #BebasMaria #MansuhSOSMA vigils. Light a candle for Maria’s freedom and for another year of Bersih’s determination.
Nothing will stop us from fighting for democracy and freedom, fighting against authoritarianism and corruption.
Bersih 2.0 steering committee