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Even after Bersih 5, the Red Shirts are here to stay

Published as “It looks like the Red Shirts are here to stay” in Malay Mail Online

At the time of writing, it is the eve of Bersih 5 — the fifth iteration of the mega rally calling for free and fair elections by polls watchdog Bersih 2.0.

Several barricades have been erected around the historic Dataran Merdeka, the final gathering point for Bersih supporters who will march there from three rallying points across the capital.

Federal Islamic authority Jakim had prepared Friday sermons for two weeks in a row lambasting street demonstrations. The first one claimed that protests will open doors towards liberalism (as if that is a bad thing), and the second one this week brazenly claimed that protests are against Islamic laws. Both warned that demonstrations will open doors to foreign intervention.

Did they somehow forget that protests by Muslim groups almost always happen after the congregation of Friday prayers?

Even more worrying was the arrests of nine activists linked to Bersih 5 right on the eve for offences as varied as activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy, to rioting, to even sedition.

The police had been clear that it will not compromise with any rallies held on Saturday — neither Bersih 5 nor the counter-rally by the so-called Red Shirts movement, branding them all “illegal” for allegedly not satisfying requirements under the Peaceful Assembly Act.

In case of police brutality and violence, Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar had earlier issued a disclosure that no, you “should not get angry” with the cops if they take action on you for “breaking the law.”

Compare that to Bersih 4 in August last year, which went without a hitch; a far cry from Bersih 3 in 2012 with its tear gas and water cannons.

Putrajaya branded it “illegal”, and even tried banning yellow shirts — a move which has since been quashed by the Court of Appeal in August this year — but supporters had an uneventful day as they continued to gather up until midnight, some probably bored out of their minds.

Even the May Day and #TangkapMO1 rallies in May and August this year respectively went off peacefully.

Malaysians thought that both police and protesters had learnt their lessons from the many protests, that peaceful assemblies were possible with discipline from the participants and patience from the authorities facilitating the events.

But whichever way Bersih 5 turned out yesterday, how did we get from then to now?

It is undeniable that the rising strength and clout of the Red Shirts contributed towards the crackdown on street demonstrations this time round, one way or another.

In September last year, I argued that some liberals had been hypocrites when demanding that the Red Shirts be stopped from organising their rally on Malaysia Day. I said their rally should go on, even when the liberals did not agree with their message — just like any other peaceful assembly, just like Bersih 4.

Well, the rally did go on but the police were woefully unprepared for the wildly undisciplined protesters who were nothing like the liberal and leftist activists who made up the bulk of anti-establishment protests.

Protesters had a heated stand-off with the police near Bukit Bintang, before finally breaking the cordon, leaving the police flustered and scrambling to keep order. Areas like Dataran Merdeka and Padang Merbok were littered with trash.

I still think they should be permitted to stage a counter-rally against Bersih 5, and Kuala Lumpur police must be commended in their pledge to prevent clashes between the two.

But the arrest of Red Shirt leader Jamal Yunos in the wee hours of Saturday morning aside, Putrajaya has been treating the group with kid gloves.

The Red Shirts had constantly harassed Bersih supporters during their national tour, some with threats of violence. They had announced their intent that wherever there are yellow shirts, there will be red shirts against them. Their hostility was not of a disagreement of ideology, but of hatred, malice and provocation.

And their unchecked intimidation might have worked. There is arguably less chatter ahead of Bersih 5, which might be attributed to political fatigue, but perhaps even more is a manifestation of fear among protesters of blood and turbulence.

Although now largely a force of anti-Bersih, the authorities seem to forget that the movement was born and galvanised under the goal of “defending the dignity of Malays” against Bersih 4 which was accused of being dominated by ethnic Chinese. The racial undertone was obvious.

So, why have the Red Shirts suffered so little consequence for their actions?

There is a similarity with the hardline Islamists’ protest in Jakarta earlier this month against Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or more popularly known as Ahok. Despite the clear religious and racial hostility against the Christian and ethnic Chinese governor, the rally had gone on with little reprimand from the authorities, ostensibly to placate the Muslim majority in the country.

The protests that saw tens of thousands of Muslims on the streets was also supported by the camp of former education minister Anies Baswedan. Why? As suggested by Sidney Jones of Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Jakarta, Anies had done so as a way to bring down Ahok, who is currently ahead of him in the gubernatorial race due next year.

But above all, the Red Shirts were left as they are as a strawman for the Malaysian public of the worst that could happen with street demonstrations. Violence. Injuries. Damage. Anger. Chaos. Riots. After the Red Shirts, endorsing a heavy-handed approach against rally-goers seems to be justified.

Instead, in a clear case of missing the point, leaders such as youth minister Khairy Jamaluddin and deputy home minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed blamed the rise of the Red Shirts on Bersih. The only way to stop the Red Shirts is to cancel Bersih 5, they said.

The Red Shirts exist not because of Bersih 2.0 and its rallies. They exist because they can. And why should they not exist?

There is obviously an issue that needs to be addressed behind the Red Shirt’s dissatisfaction, even if it is true they are a product of politicking. Both the establishment and its critics would do well to get to the root of it. But it is unlikely that we will see that.

We are not going to see the end of the Red Shirts anytime soon. As long as there are Red Shirts, attacking its purported progenitor Bersih 2.0 would be justified. Let us hope that on the flip side, Bersih would not exist merely because the Red Shirts do.

Published inMMO column
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