Where were you on July 9, 2011 when Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, was in locked down due to Bersih 2.0 street demonstrations?
Were you at the streets, along with the 5,000, 10,000 or 50,000 people (figures differ according to whom you ask)? Or did you try to go, only to be turned back by the police at one of the ubiquitous road blocks? Or perhaps you were like me and my family, who opted to stay at home and to venture out only to areas around our neighborhood?
Bersih, a coalition of 62 NGOs, is known as “The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections”. As their name suggests, this coalition is fighting for cleaner and fairer electoral system in Malaysia. So, with a name and goal like that, it is easy to gain sympathy by the foreign media and by the uninitiated. News headlines like “Government Bans Street Rally for Clean and Fair Elections” immediately puts any government in a bad light.
As Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, said, “Who doesn’t want clean elections?”
Bersih 2.0’s recent fracas made me pick up “Small Acts of Resistance”, a book by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson. This book is a collection of stories around the world about individuals, groups of people, and citizens fighting for change in their countries. As authors, Crawshaw and Jackson, admit “Small Acts of Resistance” is a bit of a misnomer. Some of these acts of resistance may be carried out by one or a few individuals, but their acts have resulted in large and cascading repercussions, some powerful enough to topple governments and dictators.
Consider some of the following “small” acts of resistance in some countries.
Resistance in Poland
In February 5, 1982, the Polish people in the town of Swidnik decided to boycott watching their TVs because they grew tired of the lies and government propaganda often propagated through their TV sets. But this wasn’t your normal turn-off-your-TV boycott. Some the town folks went for a walkabout on the streets, bringing along their TVs in strollers and wheelbarrows. Some turned the TV so that the screens faced outward towards the window, sending a message that their TVs were broadcasting fictional messages to no one. Additionally, to show support for the banned Solidarity movement, the people in Warsaw, capital city of Poland, flashed their house and apartment lights on and off at pre-determined times of the day. As some witnesses report, the whole city of Warsaw would lite up like Christmas trees, much to the fury of the government.
Resistance in Uruguay
The military junta that ruled Uruguay from 1973 to 1985 was very much hated (and feared) by the people. One of the consequences was the Uruguayans’ lack of passion in singing their national anthem. It can be hard to show nationalistic passion when one’s country is ruled by a corrupt and violent military junta. However, to indirectly show support and unity against the junta, Uruguayan football fans would first sing their national anthem with indifference before the start of any football match. However, when the anthem declares “Tiranos temblad!” (or “May tyrants tremble!”), the Uruguayan football fans would shout in unison, “Tiranos temblad!” and waved their flags. After that brief and emotive roar, the fans would resume back to their disinterest tone until the end of the long anthem.
Resistance in Peru
In May 2000, the people of Peru performed a curious flag washing activity. They would gather every Friday from noon to three in the afternoon in front of Plaza Mayor in Lima (Peru’s capital city) and wash Peru’s red-and-white flag. This weekly flag washing activity was a message that Peru’s flag had become soiled due to the corrupt President Fujimori, who, in 2009, was eventually jailed for 25 years for numerous killings under his rule.
Resistance in Iran
Taxi drivers in Iran show their disdain for the current Islamic Iranian government by refusing to pick up mullahs (male religious leaders or teachers). So, if you a turbaned man of God in Iran, one thing is for sure: forget about getting a cab ride in Tehran – because they hate you.
Resistance in Myanmar
In Myanmar (Burma), the military junta directed that the citizens dress conservatively during the country’s annual water festival in 2009. Some youths, however, thought differently as defiance against the hated junta. The result? See for yourself below.
More resistance in Myanmar
In Myanmar, the one-kyat note remains banned even until today. The back of the note is a drawing of the much revered General Aung San, the founder of the Burmese army. The note designer, however, deliberately soften the general’s face to look more like his daughter: Aung San Suu Kyi, the well known and much feared opposition voice in Myanmar. By the time the military junta discovered the similarities of appearance to Aung San Suu Kyi, it was too late. The one-kyat notes had already been printed and widely circulated, much to the secret pleasure of the Myanmar people and to much of the embarrassment of the ruling junta. The note, however, was eventually banned. It is no surprise then to learn that the Myanmar’s one-kyat note is also called the “democracy note” by some people.
Resistance in the Philippines
In Philippines in 1986, thirty female computer technicians refused to comply when they were asked to omit election vote numbers favoring the opposition. They walked out of the counting hall for a “toilet and rest break” and never returned. After a hasty press conference, they went into hiding. This was the start of the very well known “People Power Revolution” against President Ferdinand Marcus who was subsequently ousted after 25 years in power and replaced by the people’s choice, Corazon Aquino.
Resiatance in Sudan
In 2002, the women of southern Sudan, tired after endless wars, decided to withhold sex from their partners. Comical it may first appear, this “sexual abandoning” was a powerful drive to force “their men” into working for peace and not for war – and the women’s’ efforts worked. In 2005, a peace agreement was signed between the warring north and south of Sudan. Recently, on July 9, 2011 (same date as Bersih’s rally), the south of Sudan achieved sovereignty and independence, and this country is now known as The Republic of South Sudan.
Resiatance in the Soviet Union
In August 20, 1991, over a hundred thousand people gathered in central Moscow to oppose the ruling Politburo overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist leader and General Secretary of the Politburo. Facing tanks and the army, these people must have feared for their lives. Although three people died, the coup lasted less than three days, defeated not by violence or by the might of another army but defeated by peaceful and normal protesters who were ready to risk their lives against bullets and tanks.
Resiatance in East Germany
In the summer and autumn of 1989 in Leipzig town, East Germany, the number of protesters participating in Monday weekly street marches grew larger by the week. In an attempt to quash these protest marches once and for all, the East German authorities gave a final warning that these marches would no longer be tolerated and be firmly dealt with, even with lethal violence. On October 9, 1989, seventy thousand people defied government warnings of lethal violence and took to the streets. Reports said that earlier that day live ammunitions had already been distributed among the security forces, but instead of a historic bloodbath, nothing happened. The authorities caved in because they were shocked by the people’s lack of fear. No shots had been fired, and after a month, the East German regime collapsed and made way for Germany’s unification.
There are many more such stories in the book “Small Acts of Resistance” – stories about individuals who would risk their lives to fight for change and to correct the many wrongs.
However, I noticed that stories in “Small Acts of Resistance” carry a common theme. They are stories about individuals and collective resistance against highly corrupt and oppressive authorities and governments, where voices of dissent by the people are barely, if at all, tolerated. People with opposing views are often severely punished, even by imprisonment or death.
Contrary to what Bersih and the opposition parties would lead you to believe, I don’t believe most Malaysians can stomach provocative and confrontational street rallies like that on July 9, 2011. Bersih suffers from an identity crisis. On one hand, Bersih says officially it is a non-political aligned movement. But on the other hand, Bersih aligns itself openly and closely with the opposition parties. Even Bersih’s leader, Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan, seek protection from the bodyguards of the opposition leaders during the July 9 street rally.
I also believe that Bersih had already made up its mind on its course of action regardless of what the government would or wouldn’t do. Despite the Election Commission of Malaysia willingness to talk with Bersih about their reform demands and even a granted audience with the King to state their grievances, Bersih stubbornly still went ahead with the street rally, seemingly to suggest that no one wants to listen to Bersih’s demands.
So, unless we suddenly have a government who is violently oppressive (like that in East Germany prior to 1990 and the military junta currently ruling Myanmar) and who is unwilling to listen and consider voices of dissent, street demonstrations, in my opinion, are the last option.
Challenge the government – passionately if you want – through discourse, negotiation, debate, writing, and constructive action. I like to believe we can still do all this in this country without having to resort to provocative and confrontational street rallies.
I don’t know about you, but as for me, I am going to use my precious right to vote in the coming national elections.
Updated (7 June 2019): Minor corrections to the article.