Saturday, June 27, 2009

Our Civil Rights Movement

I know historians will look back on this time period, at least starting around 2007 and into present day, with a much fuller appreciation. They will no doubt note the dark episodes of state repression under the Umno controlled regime. I am also convinced they will more fully appreciate that over the past three years we’ve been undergoing our very own civil rights movement.

We may not have our own Martin Luther King Jr. as the Americans did during their historic civil rights era. But other similarities abound. The non-violent protests of all varieties, that have unfolded over the last three years alone are nothing if not about the corruption of democratic principles, the persistence of racially discriminatory laws, the assault on personal liberties, and an outcry against the disregard of the rule of law for all.

Indeed, in all its forms, this is our civil rights movement. Fragmented and haphazard as it might seem to many people, there’s no mistaking what it is. The street protests to demand equal opportunity was about marginalised and racially discriminated Malaysians wanting their civil rights respected. The candlelight vigils were about Malaysians mourning, among other things, the loss of individual liberties and suppression of free speech. The arrests of political and civil rights leaders were about attempts to thwart our civil rights movement.

In the process, we had a chance in 2008 – in a big way – to register our discontent with the regime’s assault on civil rights. Many so-called experts have claimed that the 2008 political tsunami was a protest vote against the regime’s failure to control crime and corruption. These experts failed to see that this tsunami was an expression of this civil rights movement. The voters who rejected the regime were as much registering their demand for their civil rights as they were about so-called everyday issues like uncontrolled crime and political corruption.

The public was – and is - fed up with civil rights abuses. But the regime, as in the past, only understood one formula. It hoped to reassure us that it can deliver ‘stability,’ ‘prosperity’ and ‘development’ and that we’re still so na├»ve as to continue taking this bargain at the expense of our civil rights. This time it did not work as well for the regime. It did not work for the simple reason that a vast segment of Malaysian society was – and is - demanding its civil rights. It was not prepared to bargain its civil rights for false promises of ‘stability’ and ‘prosperity.’ If you look back on the months since 3/08, it is evident that while the mainstream media has continued to sing the same tune (as in the past) about ‘stability’ and now of course so-called ‘1Malaysia’, the civil rights movement remains, in all its variety and diversity, focused on the abuse of the ISA, violation of citizens civil and human rights by the police, the continued censoring of free speech and rejection of racial discrimination (as in the education policies). It is quite telling that the former law minister Zaid Ibrahim did not resign from government due to economic mismanagement or due to government failure to control crime, corruption or to promote development. He resigned due to the abuse of the ISA, and specifically the civil rights of Teresa Kok.

Time and again, while the regime’s economic mismanagement has come under scrutiny, the central issue remains that the regime has been unable to resolve a fundamental dilemma: how to address and overcome this civil rights movement.

This failure to see that what is unfolding is a genuine civil rights movement and that it will not suffice to simply promise to fight corruption or to provide more money for Tamil schools or education scholarships. Nor will it suffice to suggest that only BN can deliver on so-called ‘stability’ and that too, only by supposedly sacrificing our civil rights. And it's evident that the Umno mind-set hasn't changed and they just don't get it. The latest case in point: the self-identified 'nobody' again demonstrates this point by claiming that Umno's main enemy is corruption. What did I tell you? They just don't get it. Let me make two related points. First, it might be worth reminding this 'nobody' that corruption in Umno did not just appear overnight under Badawi or Najib. Second, it's great for the demise of Umno if they continue to listen to this 'nobody' about corruption being the core of Umno's problem.

Clearly, the people are rejecting this bargain of 'stability' at the expense of their civil rights. Ultimately, it’s a failure of the Umno cabal to understand how a vast segment of Malaysia and Malaysians have changed that is costing the regime to erode. Ironically, even PAS appreciates that Malaysians want their civil rights respected. A regime incapable of recognising this fact is prone to continue to underestimate the significance of this genuine Malaysian civil rights movement before its very eyes.

The simple truth is, people care about - and they are demanding - their civil liberties.

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe,
We shall overcome someday.

G. Krishnan