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Bersih demonstration violence deepens Malaysia social divide

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak successfully deflected one of the biggest challenges to his government's authority during the weekend, when security forces put down street protests demanding greater electoral reform.

But analysts say Najib and his ruling Umno party have emerged badly bruised, largely because of the use of excessive force to block the rally, organized by a loose coalition of opposition parties and non-governmental organizations called Bersih.

What is more, they add, the defiance displayed by the thousands who braved a security lockdown of Kuala Lumpur was a clear demonstration of how much Malaysian society has been polarized by the country's divisive politics.

What began as a call for electoral reform by Bersih has grown to mean something more, particularly in the face of furious attacks against it by Utusan Melayu, the Umno-owned Malay-language paper, and Perkasa, the Malay supremacist group that had earlier warned of race riots and issued threats of a counter-demonstration.

In effect, the Bersih rally has come to be a proxy for those in Malaysia — whether from the Malay community or otherwise — who want a break from the old system of race-based politics; in their view, electoral reform and other problems need serious attention, but not through the usual prism of race and religion, with its tendency to descend into an “us versus the rest” contentiousness.

Analysts like Ibrahim Suffian, a director of the Merdeka Centre, one of Malaysia's premier opinion research outfits, believe that the government's heavy-handed response to the rally may have provoked some among Malaysia's growing middle class, who were previously fence-sitters, to take a more partisan role in opposition politics.

“The incredulity of the government's response with fear, the banning of yellow T-shirts and linking the movement to communism has further distanced the government from voters, particularly the younger electorate,” he says.

Dr. Bridget Welsh, associate professor of political science at the Singapore Management University, adds: “There is no question that the government lost a large chunk of support from the multi-ethnic middle ground and chattering classes.”

Najib's multiracial ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government also staged a march on the same day. But the group, numbering in the hundreds, was comprised only of members of Umno's youth wing. Conspicuously missing were representatives from the ruling coalition's Chinese and Indian parties.

Although the turnout for the Bersih rally was not as big as its organizers had hoped, the tens of thousands of people who turned up still amounted to a setback for Najib, who has worked hard to regain public trust in his BN coalition.

The BN leadership will also surely not forget that the coalition took a severe hit in the March 2008 election after the first Bersih rally was held months earlier. Then, too, the rally drew thousands of protesters.

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