April 27, 2011
Three years ago, thousands of Malaysians endured a drizzly Saturday morning in the nation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, to push for free and fair elections. Around Masjid Jamek, one of the city’s oldest mosques, there was a tentativeness about the protesters, something akin to the first day of school: people clustered idly in small groups, checking out those nearby, wondering who and how to follow. The wheels of protest were rusty; they hadn’t churned in nearly a decade – the last time thousands of Malaysians joined hands to check their government’s autocratic tendencies.
Then a young man began twirling his shirt in the air, shouting at his compatriots to press forward to a T-junction and turn past a row of riot police, their breath steaming restlessly against lowered face shields. The crowd’s hesitancy gave way to a lazy lurch, like a locomotive’s first chug out of the station. Fists began to pump. Chants found a semblance of unity.
What became clear to me right then and there was now that thousands of Malaysians had tasted their fundamental right of expression, and comprehended the value in expressing it, it was crucial that the opposition nurture that understanding by sustaining their push.
I said as much to an opposition leader a few days after the rally. But he averted his eyes and changed the subject, perhaps irritated that I wasn’t more praising of his side’s fresh “accomplishment.” A smaller rally was held at a stadium in a remote Kuala Lumpur suburb a few weeks later; but there wasn’t much beyond that.
And while the opposition did manage to wrestle control of five states in the general elections a few months later, from my vantage point a cohesive agenda and public participation in the political process was sorely missing; I detected a collective assumption – reflected in blogs and the online media – that the long-ruling race-based regime, UMNO, was down for the count and would implode on its own. I wrote about that dangerous assumption long before it was fashionable (Asia Times, November 21, 2008):
UMNO’s reform credentials are not the best indication of whether the long-ruling party
can sustain its grip on power. In recent months UMNO has in fact been met with less resistance than one might expect from a nation that is supposedly going through a socio-political paradigm shift towards more democracy and government accountability….the typically apolitical public here has become self-satisfied after having voted against the ruling government in March – as if reform is a one-off affair.
(The full article can be read here.)
A few months later acquaintances had taken to grumbling over cocktails about how much Malaysia hadn’t progressed since the rally that damp Saturday morning. And so it remains.
I am reminded of Malaysia’s stagnation now in Uganda, after two weeks in which Big Man Yoweri Museveni’s security forces have brokered no dissent against Ugandans walking to work to protest government neglect of inflation and other pressing matters. Unlike Malaysia, however, the first crackdown – April 11, ending in tear gas, beatings and arrests of opposition leaders – led to larger protests.
Like Malaysia, in Uganda we’re talking about a generally fearful public that has momentarily risen above its apolitical instincts of survival – nurtured by the government through the paternalistic yet threatening use of the term “stability” in contrast to a Hobbesian past – to ask their leaders to rule more responsibly.
The question again is one of sustainability.
With the Ugandan public risking ever greater use of force – the dreaded military intervened on the second walk-to-work protest in which opposition leader Kizza Besigye was shot in the hand – Museveni is understandably worried.
But those Ugandans interested in seeing the country live up to its vast potential and who are enlightened enough to realize that’s not possible amid the country’s crisis of leadership, should also be worried – because Museveni is testing Ugandans’ determination, something that has traditionally been, well, fickle at best.
And now that two of this movement toward government accountability’s leaders, Norbert Mao and Besigye, languish in prison, facing charges of inciting violence, organizing unlawful assembly and disobeying police orders, the burgeoning movement’s stamina is being sorely tested.
Thirty people rose to that challenge Tuesday, when they tried to take food to Besigye in prison. They were promptly arrested, a fact less important than the message their bravery signaled to their fellow Ugandans: that if you want to see change, you cannot let up.