Interview: Organizing Malaysia's largest protests in over 50 years

Ambiga Sreenevasan
Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Over the past two years, protests have taken a prominent place in the media. From the Arab Spring, to Occupy, to the "casseroles" protests in Quebec, people exercizing their rights to public assembly and expression have been put in the spotlight.

In Malaysia, the protests started back in 2007, and have only been gaining in strength. Referred to as ‘Bersih’, the movement for electoral reform has been growing at an incredible rate for a country that consistently punishes its citizens for participating in public protest.

We had the opportunity to speak with one of the Bersih movement’s co-chairs, Ambiga Sreenevasan, to discuss her experiences coordinating the country’s largest public protests since independence.

"Malaysians are tired of a broken electoral process," says Bersih activist Ambiga Sreenevasan

What is Bersih?
Bersih literally translates into "clean" in Malay. We're a non-partisan coalition endorsed by 84 civic and rights groups calling for electoral reform – we want clean and fair elections in Malaysia.

Bersih began in 2007, calling for change in the electoral process in advance of the pending election. At our three major rallies over the past five years, we have seen the number of attendees grow from 40,000 in 2008, to 250,000 in 2012.

What's the problem?
Malaysia’s electoral system is built to support the incumbent. The system is corrupt, and Malaysians are tired of a broken electoral process. We've had the same political party in power since independence in 1957, and it’s time to let free and fair elections actually decide who our government should be, and how they should rule the country.

We are calling for eight points of change, including a cleanup of the electoral roll and free and fair access to the media.

What's different about Bersih from other movements in Malaysia?
There is something uniting about Bersih. The government tries to divide the country along racial lines to keep us apart. But Bersih reaches across all demographics. This isn’t a group of people who define themselves as activists. It’s the middle class that has moved – with young, old, and everyone in between now involved. The peaceful goals of electoral reform are universal to all Malaysians.

What is the significance of the numbers: Bersih, Bersih 2.0, and Bersih 3.0?
Bersih was the name of the first rally, held in 2007. Bersih 2.0 is version two of Bersih. While Bersih was set up and the rally organized by politicians and civil society, Bersih 2.0 is managed and controlled entirely by civil society and is now a coalition of NGOs. Bersih 2.0 organized the Bersih 2.0 rally in July 2011 and the Bersih 3.0 rally in April 2012.

Up until recently, protests in Malaysia were relatively small. Do people have more freedom now?
I don’t think that much has changed. People don’t feel safer to attend protests – they’re just less afraid of the consequences. We’re fed up.

Recently introduced legislation has only slightly changed the restrictions on protests. Under the old Police Act, protests were illegal without a permit – and permits were rarely given out. Under the new Assembly Act, people are free to gather as long as they give notice at least 10 days in advance.

But proposed rallies can still be denied for reasons related to public order and security – provisions that were used to deny Bersih 3.0 in Kuala Lumpur in April. We were greeted the same way as in previous years: with the Federal Reserve Unit, barricades, water cannons and tear gas.

How has Bersih become so big?
Social media has taken away the government’s monopoly on information. Although the mainstream media continues to report the government’s voice, online news media and social networking sites now provide alternative viewpoints, and let individuals tell their own stories.

Social media has particularly influenced the way people view the rallies themselves. It has normalized the idea of protest. With cell phones, Facebook and Twitter, people are able to upload their photos instantly and report on what’s happening on the ground. This has made it much harder for the government to control the messaging and vilify all protesters as they have done in the past.

Watching protests take place all around the world, from Occupy to the Arab Spring, and people being able to see their friends, families, and colleagues participating, have helped to take the stigma and fear out of public assembly.

What are Bersih's biggest accomplishments?
Bersih’s biggest success is in uniting Malaysians of all races and removing their fear of expressing themselves and of holding public gatherings.

Plus, Malaysians are much more clued in about the electoral process and there is, without doubt, heightened awareness amongst Malaysians about the need for electoral reform.

The gatherings have also grown across the country, starting in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, and spreading to 9 of Malaysia's 13 states this year. Gatherings also took place in cities globally – "Global Bersih".

What other obstacles is Bersih up against?
One of the biggest challenges we have faced is people’s fear to attend events like these in person. Despite supporting the cause, many are afraid to show up, fearful of the consequences they will face.

Aside from the physical risks, the government has directly threatened the jobs or scholarships of those who participate.

What challenges have you faced as a Bersih organizer?
I don’t know where to begin! I have faced personal attacks by the government and their agents, and in the mainstream media. I have received physical threats, suffered harassment and intimidation in my home. I have been hauled up by the police for questioning. I was arrested at the Bersih 2.0 rally. I am watched and and I am followed. However, I continue to fight because I have the unwavering support of ordinary Malaysians who have rallied around our cause.

We’ve heard that you’re stepping down. Is that because of the threats?
It has nothing to do with the threats. After the next general election, the entire organizing committee will be stepping down. We feel that if we are telling trying to tell the government that they can’t be in charge forever, we should be setting an example. We can already see new leaders emerging. This is a people’s movement, and we don’t want to stand in its way as it continues to grow and evolve.

Additional Resources:

Bersih website:
Centre for Independent Journalism:

Ambiga Sreenevasan spoke to Laura Tribe, Web and Social Media Editor at Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and IFEX, the global network for defending and promoting free expression.