BERSIH 3.0 co-chairman Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan's call for people to show their displeasure and demand for electoral reforms on Saturday brought out thousands of Malaysians from all races and walks of life in a colourful expression of free will.
But Ambiga's calls also brought out the professionals the hardcore saboteurs who dreamt of regime change and the provocateurs who simply wanted chaos and trigger a mass protest that could eventually lead to the toppling of a democratically-elected government.
These people dream of sustained protests on the streets that eventually drive away tourists and worry investors.
Such sustained protests were last seen during the reformasi years in the 1990s with the arrest and jailing of the then Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
The same man was present on Saturday, after warning months earlier that Middle East-style protests could hit South-East Asian countries if the reforms were delayed.
If Ambiga thought she could keep everyone within limits, then she was sadly mistaken.
Different people read differently into a mass protest and the hardcore politicians in the crowd have other ideas too.
president Azmin Ali had egged on the crowd to break down the police barriers at Dataran Merdeka that were put up due to a court order declaring the place “out of bounds”.
Ambiga had given the order to disperse at about 3pm, but some marched forward and broke thorough the barriers.
They pelted a police car with bottles and stones, jumped on it and smashed the windscreen and later overturned it. They then attacked a police motorcycle and tried to grab a policeman's gun.
The attack on the police car was reminiscent of an incident in 1999 when a TV3 car was set upon during the reformasi protest.
At a press conference later, Ambiga expressed shock over the turn of events.
The initial carnival mood where people were giving flowers to FRU personnel, who reciprocated by wearing them, was hijacked by a section of the crowd.
Ambiga described the violence as “highly unusual” and suspected that it could have been instigated by agent provocateurs.
The problem is that while Ambiga heads a civil rights movement which is winning support by the day from young people, who incidentally make up the bulk of new voters, she has chosen to tie that movement with Opposition politics.
She has given Opposition leaders an opportunity to ride on the Bersih movement.
Ostensibly, independent non-politicians fill the Bersih steering committee but they are also enthusiastic Pakatan Rakyat supporters.
The Opposition leaders are hardened politicians who have served time in jail, have courted arrest many times and are willing to take greater risk to trigger mass action.
During the two previous Bersih rallies in November 2007 and July 9 last year, a similar scene took place; a section of the crowd taking over the protest and turning it violent.
The same police force, which was peaceful in the morning, was forced to fire tear gas and arrest protesters in the afternoon.
It brings to mind DAP vice-chairman Senator Tunku Abdul Aziz Tunku Ibrahim's warning that by not using the stadiums offered, Bersih 3.0 “encourages Malaysians to break the law”.
He had said he supported an individual's constitutional right to assembly but felt that it must be exercised within the provisions of the law. “As a lawmaker I am not willing to break the law.”
That same advice could also apply to Ambiga, a lawyer, but for politicians who desire regime change it is another matter.
The clock has been turned back on a burgeoning civil rights movement, and what could have been a shining example of peaceful protest, turned into a violent demonstration.
There were no warnings of reprisals in the days leading to Bersih 3.0, no roadblocks set around the city and no arrest of people streaming in for the protest.
But all that was blown away after some protesters breached the police barriers.
Many of the protesters who turned up on Saturday were those who genuinely wanted to bring about positive change. They had meant well and they represented middle Malaysia.
And, for the thousands of young Malaysians who braved Ambiga's call for a sit-in protest over the slow pace of electoral reforms, it was their first baptism of fire and one that they can wear as a badge of honour.
Comment by BARADAN KUPPUSAMY
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