Malaysian activists turn on Protest 2.0 strategy

July 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Scenes of a large protest march on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and the ensuing police crackdown have been astonishing for outsiders and Malaysians alike. It’s a rare thing for Malaysians to take such direct action in defiance of their government.

Demonstrations are not tolerated by the authorities and are not a characteristic of the country’s multi-ethnic, politically passive society – at least until recently.

What also helped to amplify the noise of the July 9 protest was the considerable ownership the organisers gave to participants in order to incorporate mobile and web elements.  This strategy, together with the hard line taken by Malaysian authorities against the demonstrators, has helped project the Bersih 2.0 movement beyond simply a march for political reform.

A deepening mood of anger and unhappiness with the Malaysia’s government and political system has been measureable on the internet for many years now and frustration with government corruption and cronyism is now being translated into the kind of direct protest action witnessed on the streets of the capital on Saturday.

Organised under the Bersih 2.0 banner by over 60 non-governmental organisations, the protesters had gone head to head with a government ban on the protest and the ensuing clashes turned the streets of Kuala Lumpur into scenes more akin to Bangkok or Vancouver as riot police fired tear gas and arrested over 1600 marchers.

Bersih means clean in the Malay language and is a reference to the movement’s call for cleaner government and political reforms. Some observers say the Bersih movement gets its inspiration from the Arab Spring pro-democracy movements. Although Malaysia has regular elections, the country has been ruled by the UMNO party since independence in 1957 and there’s frustration that Prime Minister Najib Razak is not implementing a reform agenda.

Assessing the size of Saturday’s crowd, as an important indicator of the movement’s support, has been problematic. Independent journalists say the march numbered over 10,000, the police claim there were about 5000-6000 demonstrators and the organisers say over 50,000 people participated.

But it becomes difficult for the pro-government news media to assert low numbers when images like these are being shared on the social web by the demonstrators.

Many citizen photographers like Melissa Sasidaran also shared their live images in running photostreams.

While the organisers can also claim the threat of a government crackdown kept many people at home, they can point to the large volume of mentions on Twitter, Facebook as evidence that the protest had a much larger footprint than just what occurred on the ground.

The alternative Malaysiakini news website posted minute by minute updates of events in Kuala Lumpur. Demand on the day was so high, it had to post this message on its homepage:

The extremely heavy traffic to Malaysiakini today has made the website almost inaccessible. We are providing this stripped-down version for the benefit of our readers.

This video posted by Malaysiakini on YouTube shows police firing tear gas at demonstrators.

Bersih organisers also promised simultaneous rallies in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Here’s the New Zealand Bersih 2.0 Facebook page and this is the New Zealand Herald’s coverage of the Bersih rally in Auckland.

Here’s a tweet from the equivalent event in Melbourne:

Other Malaysian Twitter users tweeted:

Singapore’s The Online Citizen offered its support on its Facebook page with photos of the Bersih rally in Singapore.

The march was also streamed live on WWITV, as another alternative for Malaysian netizens to see an event that the state media might aim to minimise.

Politweet, a service that observes “the Malaysian twitterverse” aggregated Bersih tweets as a raw record of how things unfolded.

Watching the social media feeds and user generated content on July 9 allowed many Malaysians watching in Malaysia and elsewhere a real sense of what happened that day and offered them ways to get involved. The 2.0 suffix emphasised the movement was as much a digital one as a street protest.

While both sides, the government and the Bersih 2.0 movement, will try and claim success for what happened on the streets of KL on July 9, there appears to be only one winner on the social web.

If you are reading this in Malaysia, let us know if you also saw it this way.

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