By Clara Chooi
KUALA LUMPUR, May 26 — In the face of growing criticisms and intimidation by its detractors, Bersih has been drawing its strength from ordinary Malaysians determined to keep the group’s cause and leaders safe.
According to Bersih co-chairman Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, the groundswell was triggered when key government leaders failed to condemn the anti-Bersih groups that have resorted to exercising their buttocks and selling beef burgers outside her home to protest against the “Bersih 3.0” April 28 rally.
“It is clearly the right-thinking, ordinary citizens of Malaysia who are now rising to the occasion to establish the norms of decency. This is unfortunately not reflected in our leaders... it is the people who are now setting the standards,” she told The Malaysian Insider yesterday.
Even as anti-Bersih proponents dangle millions of ringgit worth of prizes to draw more supporters to their side, there appears to be a flurry of activity online by pro-Bersih netizens clamouring to stand up for the polls watchdog in their own symbolic way.
An online petition “To support and thank Datuk Ambiga Sreenavasan”, started by one “Hope E Wong” on May 14, has drawn more than 11,000 signatures as of 7pm yesterday.
The petition — created using “Causes”, an online advocacy and fundraising application within social networking website Facebook — features a short letter addressed to Ambiga, thanking her and Bersih for “all you have done and all that you will do for the country”.
The letter makes specific reference to the recent “burger protest” by traders outside Ambiga’s home in Bukit Damansara and how the government-owned Malay daily Berita Harian had later claimed that the public harbours hatred for the Bersih 3.0 April 28 rally in the city.
“All of us here feel that the actions above are disgraceful and juvenile. These personal attacks on you, your family and your neighbourhood should not be allowed and should not be encouraged.
“Our message is — be resolute and know that all of us are behind you, Datuk Ambiga,” said the letter, signed by “Rakyat Malaysia” (Malaysian citizens).
Ambiga confirmed with The Malaysian Insider yesterday that the petition, which is still attracting more signatures, had already been framed and presented to her on Wednesday by those who had started it.
“As of 1.30pm on March 23 (Wednesday), the petition was signed by 10,525 individuals. It was framed beautifully and they had also included in a file of comments from supporters,” she said.
Ambiga said the petition was started by members of the public who supported Bersih’s cause and were angered by those determined to demonise the group.
“I met them and had a chat with them. And this is what keeps me going; it’s what keeps Bersih going.
“So in the face of intimidation, this is where we draw our strength,” she said.
Ambiga added that many other concerned Malaysians have also come forward to offer support to her, her family and Bersih’s fight for free and fair elections.
“Even yesterday (Thursday), so many people turned up at my house. People I have never met before... they came to show their support, to tell us we are not alone,” she said.
Ambiga’s home has been the target of anti-Bersih protests of late, following the Bersih 3.0 rally for free and fair elections in the heart of the city.
Over the past few weeks, separate groups have held gatherings outside the former Bar Council president’s private property in upscale Bukit Damansara, including the “burger protest” by a group of traders, and the “butt exercises” performed by several retired army veterans.
On Thursday, two anti-Bersih groups — “Bersih 4.0” and “Halau 1.0” — had gathered near Ambiga’s residence demanding the leader apologise for the violence and alleged property damage that resulted from the rally.
The “Bersih 4.0” group is planning a mammoth rally at Stadium Bukit Jalil this June 23, hoping to push its “message of peace” and rejection of “Bersih 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0”, which were the names given to Bersih’s three rallies in 2007, last year and this April 28.
The group is also offering valuable prizes, including a Lamborghini Gallardo supercar and five Modenas motorcycles, all worth millions in total, as lucky draw giveaways to those who support them.
“I do not know what they are doing, but let them proceed,” Ambiga said, in response to the group’s plans.
The April 28 rally that saw tens of thousands gather at six different locations before heading to Dataran Merdeka was peaceful until about 2.30pm when Ambiga asked the crowd to disperse.
But her announcement was not heard by most of the crowd who persisted to linger around the historic square which the court had already barred to the public over the weekend.
Just before 3pm, some protestors breached the barricade surrounding the landmark, leading police to disperse the crowd with tear gas and water cannons.
Police then continued to pursue rally-goers down several streets amid chaotic scenes which saw violence from both sides over the next four hours.
Several dozen demonstrators have claimed that they were assaulted by groups of over 10 policemen at a time and visual evidence appears to back their claim but police also point to violence from rally-goers who also attacked a police car.
The police car then crashed into a building before some protestors flipped it on its side.