Bersih goes from street protests to indoor fest

Protesters gathering around Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur during the Bersih rally on Aug 30, 2015.
Protesters gathering around Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur during the Bersih rally on Aug 30, 2015. PHOTO: ST FILE

Malaysian reform group holds festival featuring forums, film and concert

Electoral reform group Bersih, widely known for its four massive street protests demanding clean and fair elections, is employing another method this week to spread its message - by organising colouring contests and stand-up comedy shows in a closed-door setting.

The five-day festival themed Yellow Mania will also feature forums involving academicians and activists, the screening of the film The Lady, which details Myanmar icon Aung San Suu Kyi's fight for democracy, a photo exhibition of the Bersih 4 rally last year and a concert.

Bersih chief Maria Chin Abdullah insisted that the event - which begins today at a small venue, the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall - is an appropriate platform for people to discuss electoral problems that have not yet been resolved, as compared to organising yet another street demonstration.

"The purpose of this festival is for people to voice out and raise issues for discussion. Outdoor protests do not have a proper platform for forums," she told The Straits Times.

Bersih had initially faced opposition when Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said it needed to apply for a permit for the festival, but the electoral reform group rebuffed the suggestion, saying there was no need as it was held in a private space.

PROPER PLATFORM

The purpose of this festival is for people to voice out and raise issues for discussion. Outdoor protests do not have a proper platform for forums.

BERSIH CHIEF MARIA CHIN ABDULLAH, on the reform group's new approach.

The police later clarified that Bersih did not need to notify them of its plans for the festival as it would be held in a closed space.

A festival highlight is the launch of a Bersih Bootcamp, which the group is ready to roll out nationwide beginning in Penang from Jan 29 to 31. Through the bootcamp, Bersih will recruit and train 30 young people per state as volunteers to help educate voters and prepare for the next general election, which must be called by mid-2018.

The festival is a far cry in scale from Bersih's heavily publicised street protests which attracted tens of thousands of Malaysians wearing yellow - the colour synonymous with the reform group - to throng the streets in Kuala Lumpur in 2007, 2011, 2012 and last year.

These protests have routinely faced crackdowns by the authorities, who refused to issue the necessary police permits and even used tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters.

Although the audience reach may be smaller, analysts believe changing tack from street demonstrations to private indoor functions may be more beneficial at this point in time as it would help Bersih open up the room for dialogue and avoid confrontation with the authorities.

Pollster Merdeka Centre's executive director Ibrahim Suffian said street protests, which attract a lot of controversy and criticism, could become counterproductive.

Thus, a less confrontational and more friendly approach by Bersih is positive for the country, he said.

"In many ways, Bersih has already established its presence in Malaysia. This event will allow it to broaden its repertoire to reach out to different people," Mr Ibrahim told The Straits Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 06, 2016, with the headline 'Bersih goes from street protests to indoor fest'. Print Edition | Subscribe