Now a state of emergency has enabled the authorities to black out opposition radio and television stations (and in some cases smash their equipment). Public meetings have been banned. That has given all sides a chance to shout “provokatsiya”, a Russian word with no direct translation, much used in the ex-communist world. Literally, it means a “provocation”, but with elements of “stunt” and “dirty trick”.
The upshot is that Mikheil Saakashvili, the strong-headed pro-Western president who triumphed in the 2003 “rose revolution”, seems to have let himself be provoked to the point of near disaster. He has handed a propaganda gift to his Russian adversaries, severely dented his self-proclaimed credentials as a democrat, and dismayed his friends abroad. On Thursday November 8th Mr Saakashvili tried to defuse some of the tension by calling hasty presidential elections for January 5th.
Mr Saakashvili and his allies in government already have a strong electoral mandate. Big demonstrations do not necessarily trump that. The country’s economic, regulatory and military reforms have been by any standard a stunning success. And the opposition is in large part incoherent and hysterical, and may well be financed or even organised by outside forces that wish the country ill. Today Georgia publicly accused Badri Patarkatsishvili, a tycoon who co-owns Imedi, an opposition television and radio station, with Rupert Murdoch, of trying to stage a coup (how Mr Patarkatsishvili, who is exiled from Russia, would fit in with the alleged Kremlin involvement is not clear).
But other aspects are troubling. The presidency’s strong powers make it particularly important that decision-making is based on the best available advice and is exercised with scrupulous clarity and care. Mr Saakashvili’s impulsive temperament, coupled in some cases with a blind eye to his friends’ flaws, have created a worrying impression of both cronyism and a liking for a brusque, even bullying, style. He is keener on building a functioning state than building a democracy. His heroes are not the likes of Thomas Jefferson, but Kemal Ataturk.
As many as 40,000 people struggled to make their way into the city center in defiance of the police ban on the rally before heading for the Istana Negara, the king’s palace. Police said they had arrested at least a dozen protesters demanding change and an end to corruption. There were no reports that people had been hurt.
The confrontation between the country’s nine sultans and the government appears to be deepening as well, with Mizan Zainal Abidin, the Sultan of Terengganu, who currently holds the rotating kingship and is Malaysia’s constitutional head of state, ordering his royal guards to stand aside so that the marchers could deliver the petition despite the fact that police had refused to grant a permit for the rally. The delegation, led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, handed the memorandum to the King’s secretary at the gate of the Istana Negara at 4 pm, accompanied by PAS’ Hadi Awang and Nasharuddin Mat Isa and DAP’s Lim Kit Siang and Lim Guan Eng. The organisers then asked the crowd to disperse
Malaysia’s mainstream press, owned by the ethnic political parties, carried nothing on their websites about the protest, the biggest in Malaysia in a decade. Popular websites were jammed, apparently by government-allied cyber-jammers.
What caused the protest? As the story continues,
The protests have been sparked by continuing reports of rigged elections, judicial irregularities, widespread corruption in the dominant ethnically-based political parties, which have been in power since the country won independence from the British in 1957, and the perceived weakness of Badawi. In particular, the protesters point to a by-election in the town of Ijok in April, which the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition won in the face of what looked like a solid challenge by Parti Keadilan.
A Malaysian blogger, Raja Petra Kamaruddin, charged earlier that of the 12,000 voters in the district, some 1,700 were phantom voters, with people as old as 107 still on the rolls. Others listed as voters were as young as eight years old. The ruling coalition outspent the opposition massively and, others charged, also bused in voters.
On Saturday, the government posted 4,000 police from the Field Reserve Unit to block all roads leading into Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), the former cricket pitch in front of the colonial-era Selangor Club. That brought Kuala Lumpur’s always chaotic traffic to a standstill and nearly paralyzed the city. Protesters abandoned vehicles and streamed toward the city center. They were asked to wear yellow as the color of the day because, according to flyers handed out all over the city, it is “the color for citizen action worldwide and the color for the press-freedom movement.” It also happens to be the color for Malaysia’s royalty.
There are photos of the protest, including a rather nifty map of Kuala Lumpur showing the route of the march,and a video, and links to how Malaysia’s media reported it (a traffic jam) and the outside world reported it (what it was, a rally) in Screenshots, Jeff Ooi’s blog:
Organisers of the BERSIH rally had no qualms in announcing the four gathering points — Sogo department store, Masjid India, Masjid Negara and Pasar Seni — for the march to begin from Dataran Merdeka to Istana Negara. It now looks like a red herring to divert police deployment of force.
By 2.30pm. Tian Chua, leading a crowd of about 500 at Pasar Tani, marched to Dataran Merdeka only to be blockaded by the FRU and police personnel stationed in front of the Bar Council building, Jalan Pasar Besar.
Verbal exchanges ensued, with wheelchair-bound Irene Fernandez of Tenaganita adding spice to the verbal volleys…
A kilometer away, Dr Hatta Ramli engaged another police blockade, and verbal exchanges ensued with some physical contacts and minor skirmishes reported. Elsewhere in Masjid Jamek and Masjid India areas, some BERSIH rally participants, particularly those in yellow shirts, were detained and later released…
Somewhere nearer, aroud Majid Jamek, where the LRT bypassed the station without making a usual halt at Pasar Tani, drama ensued before the rain poured…
Meanwhile, another group led by Ustaz Hadi Awang (enroute from Pasar Tani) and Nasharuddin Mat Isa, coming from Masjid Negara and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, weaved through the alleys connecting the Dayabumi basement carpark and made their way to the Istana…
By then, Lim Kit Siang, Lim Guan Eng, Khalid Ibrahim and Kamaruddin Jaafar had waited patiently at the gate of the palace. The crowd, some meandering through Jalan Kampung Attap, had swollen to over 40,000, congregating behind the police condone some 200 meters away from the palace.
Police back-up were ordered, with truckloads of uniformed enforcers rushing to the spot. Traffic personnel were seen directing the crowd to cross the road safely.
The leaders appealed for more time when Brickfields OCPD Sulaiman Junaidi threatened to use force to disperse the crowd. Khalid Ibrahim asked for five more minutes as the memo was in the hand of Anwar Ibrahim and PKR president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who were caught in the snarling traffic, an outcome of police blockades mounted on the perimeters of the city.
Finally, Anwar arrived on the pillion seat of a big bike…
The delegation was, however, prevented from entering the palace compound. Minutes later, the memo was ultimately delivered at the gate, received by an Agong’s secretary.
The crowd dispersed peacefully, in much the same way they had walk from the starting point of the route…
Obviously, the organisers had learned their lesson well from the Batu Buruk Incident, where agent provocateurs had induced a pandemonium that ended with live bullets being fired at the civilians by the police.
The unsung heroes were the brigade in maroon, the Unit Amal Malaysia, organised by PAS. This is the same group of youths who gave me a motorcycle ride from Taman Melewar to the Markaz Tarbiyah PAS Pusat in Gombak when I attended the Hari Raya Open House recently.
The BERSIH memo was successfully submitted to the Istana around 4.00pm today, cheered on by about 40,000 people who braved the rain, and the police’s water cannons and tear gas, to accomplish the delivery.
There had never been peaceful demonstrations, the PM said? Today, the crowd marched and dispersed after the submission of memo, peacefully…
Incidentally, the BERSIH rally remained top news of the hour, every hour, since 3.00pm on Al-Jazeera International today.
I was in the Al-Jazeera studio to give live commentaries during the 3.00pm, 4.00pm and 6.00pm bulletins over Astro Channel 513. There will be a live crossover with Anwar Ibrahim during the 8.00pm prime time news tonight.
There are visuals that show Al-Jazeera correspondent getting doused in the chemical-laced waterjets the Police shot at the crowd.
The Minister of Information was caught rattling mindless criticism at the Doha-based satellite channel when was interviewed over thephone during the 4.00pm bulletin. It was active denial mode that shook many heads in the newsroom, and Astro deemed it fit to have it removed when the edited version was on air again at 6.00pm…
BBC’s new pointman in KL, Robin Brant, and CNN International each has a report in addition to other global media chronicling the event. Read them comparatively to judge for yourselves how history took place and was reported locally and by foreign media, respectively.
In think it out*, another harsh look at the party-controlled media in Malaysia:
Zam also got creamed by Aljazeera (worse than Syed Hamid did at the hands of BBC not too long back ) in a phone interview right after the march. He claimed that Aljazeera was “exaggerating” the actions of the police, to which the correspondent replied “As you say that, sir, we are watching scenes of protesters being sprayed by chemical-filled water!”
Also sad to note that both our Foreign and Information Ministers don’t speak English very well..
The ironic thing is that one of the key points in the memorandum was the control of the mainstream media by Barisan – proven right by the massive cover up the govt is trying to put on.
The story first surfaced on October 29 when the Catholic Priests organization aired allegations of a US$5.5 million fund maintained by Samsung. That has now grown to 1 trillion won, according to Kim and the association. In an interview with the partly state-owned Korean television station MBC, Kim said individual prosecutors received US$5,000 to US$20,000 during a single payment session, depending on rank and position, adding that some prosecutors had come to him to ask why they hadn’t received cash payments.
The whistleblower alleges that Samsung regularly bribed as many as 40 Korean prosecutors and manipulated evidence and testimony in connection with the illegal transfer of wealth from the Samsung chairman to his children. That involved Samsung Everland, which controls the group itself through links that include 19.3 percent of Samsung Life Insurance and holdings in other group affiliates. Samsung Everland, an amusement park and entertainment company, allegedly was involved in helping Lee pass on control of the business empire to his son, Lee Jae-yong. Lee Jae-yong is alleged to have bought 1.25 million Samsung Everland shares at W7,700 (US$7.90) per share — a pittance compared to the trading price of W85,000 at the time.
The story has been getting scant attention in Korea’s mainstream press, where Samsung, the country’s biggest company and the fifth largest in the world, controls as much as 30 percent of the advertising dollars and where newspapers are wary of reporting derogatory news. The international wire services have been reluctant to run the story as well without independent confirmation. However, the growing legions of Korea’s bloggers are having a field day with it.