The Malaysian government is ramping up pressure on the opposition over a massive rally that turned violent, with senior national leaders, police and clerics weighing in on the issue.
One day after police chief Ismail Omar said his men were working to identify the mastermind behind an alleged attempt to use the rally to overthrow the government, the National Fatwa Council denounced such protests as “haram”.
The government kicked its campaign up a notch as the opposition gave its own version of events yesterday, including instances of alleged police violence during the April 28 rally.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has said that the rally organized by the Bersih electoral reforms group was an attempt to overthrow the government. He accused the protesters of wanting to occupy the capital's Merdeka Square not 'for two or three hours but for two or three days or even longer'.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad again said yesterday that the rally was led by opposition parties which wanted to bring down the government by discrediting it and accusing it of cheating in elections.
“They want to make Malaysia like Egypt, Tunisia which were brought down through riots and now Syria,” he told a conference in Kedah on Sunday night. “When the government does not fall, [they] can appeal to the foreign power to help and bring down, even if it means using fire power.”
The opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance dismissed the comments on Monday as “hilarious”, and made by “comedians” who have turned Malaysia into an international laughing stock.
Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) vice-president Mahfuz Omar said the opposition has no intention of toppling the government using unconstitutional means.
“I am saying it is comical because Bersih 3.0 participants had come out with salt and mineral water,” he said.
“If we had wanted to overthrow the government, we would have brought weapons, and we would not have gone to Merdeka Square, we would have gone to Putrajaya,” said Mahfuz, referring to the seat of government.
The April 28 rally brought tens of thousands of people into downtown Kuala Lumpur to demand electoral reforms, but it turned violent when some protesters breached a police cordon.
Riot police began firing tear gas and spraying water cannon, triggering running battles which saw protesters being beaten by police and a police car overturned by the crowd.
Both the government and the opposition have moved swiftly to defend their actions and tell their sides of the story.
Videos uploaded onto the Internet appeared to show opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim gesturing to his right-hand man Azmin Ali who seemingly spoke to a man who proceeded to remove metal barricades put up by police.
The opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance moved to counter the allegations through a nationwide roadshow that began on Monday.
“Both sides are trying to make sure that they don't lose their own supporters. It is important for them that they win this war of public perception,” said Professor P. Sivamurugan, a political analyst at University Sains Malaysia.
The opposition is going directly to the ground to counter the government's charge and starting with two rallies, both in Selangor. Top opposition leaders will then go on a nationwide roadshow to explain to the people that the April 28 rally was peaceful until the police started firing tear gas and roughing people up, including journalists.
Prof Sivamurugan said it is too early to tell which side will win the war of public perception.
“Too many factors are in play this time,” he said.