Technology and protest

By Kapil Sethi
July 03, 2011 | The Malaysian Insider

JULY 3 — To an observer of the increasingly charged political rhetoric in the country, the lack of political acumen on display by the ruling coalition vis- à-vis the Bersih 2.0 rally is truly astonishing.

If there is one thing to be learned from the Arab Spring, it is that draconian measures against protesters give more impetus and motivation to their cause. It is a different paradigm from the past where in the absence of alternative media, divide and rule was a very successful strategy.

The larger question, of course, is what the powers that be are so afraid of? The answer to a great extent has to do with the current power of technology. Yes, technology. For instance, consider the differences between, say, the online Curi Curi Wang Malaysia protest and the Bersih 2.0 rally.

Firstly, it seems odd that a street protest (Bersih 2.0) sounds like an online protest while an online protest (Curi Curi Wang Malaysia) sounds like a street demonstration. In the Malaysian contest, both forms of protest used to pressure authority structures to change current policy are somewhat new.

The former is a purely online protest leveraging social networking technology to register protest which goes viral very quickly and after achieving its immediate objective in terms of followers and then tends to lose steam equally quickly.

The latter though leverages the power of visual technology (cameras, news coverage, video clips for online dissemination) to create memorable imagery in order to garner longer lasting support.

While technology has played a crucial part in allowing both forms of protest to become viable, intuitively we understand that Bersih 2.0 poses a greater danger to the status quo than Curi Curi Wang Malaysia.

Online protests are by and large due to their nature less threatening as they offer a safe way to register protest without any of the risks of arrest or physical harm. The lack of effort required (clicking on a like button) creates the perception that it can be ignored.

But when people are willing to take much greater effort and risk to register their protest, as in the case of the Bersih 2.0 rally, we know that their courage and belief in their cause is also much greater.

Also, technology allows street rallies to make for compelling viewing instantaneously, whether on television or online. The power of street protests comes from the visual evidence of the protester’s commitment to a cause, Tahrir Square being a prime example.

Which is why the wholesale banning of anything associated with Bersih 2.0 comes as a surprise. (Ed’s note: Bersih 2.0 as a movement was banned yesterday.) While raising the costs and risks associated with participation will hardly deter the committed, it will surely enhance the watchability of the event, and subsequently create a level of admiration and sympathy among bystanders and fence sitters.

Add to this the ostensibly non-partisan nature of the cause (free and fair elections) and the government’s heavy-handed approach runs the risk of actually worsening its popular standing.

A smarter strategy would be to use this understanding to minimise the impact on the voting population by turning the rally into as much of a non-event as possible. We all know that news cycles are limited and there is a preponderance of causes around the world.

An unopposed peaceful rally for a couple of hours has potentially much less play as a news story than one full of arrests, roadblocks, confiscated T-shirts and dire warnings of violence.

As it stands now though, Bersih 2.0 has the potential to actually become what the ruling coalition fears the most; a powerful show of anger by seemingly ordinary Malaysians which becomes a catalyst to convert the fence-sitting voter to an opposition supporter.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Sunday, 3 July 2011 - 11:31 am

    ///It is a different paradigm from the past where in the absence of alternative media, divide and rule was a very successful strategy.///

    The days of divide and rule are numbered under the sweep of alternate media. Seeing that they are fast losing this strategy, Umno/BN is intensifying it repression on civil liberties to create a culture of fear and intimidation among the people.

  2. #2 by bruno on Sunday, 3 July 2011 - 11:40 am

    The damaged has been done for Umno.Their
    plans to used Abrahim Ali to intimidate and to provoke confrontation has backfired.Then using Umno youth’s gangster bikers aka mat
    rempits to terrorised and threatening to burn down PKR’s HQ has caused a huge public backlash.Then it has made the Umno GOM
    the laughing stock of the world.Soon come GE 13 it will be totally decimated.

  3. #3 by negarawan on Sunday, 3 July 2011 - 11:43 am

    The alternate media must make known to the international community the crimes and corruption of UMNO/BN so that international pressure can be put on UMNO to stop its undemocratic and cruel repression of opposition parties and leaders.

  4. #4 by bruno on Sunday, 3 July 2011 - 11:47 am

    The Umno GOM has sunk to a new low as they have outlawed Bersih.These Umno GOM which breds thugs,hooligans,gangsters and terrorists is scarce stiff of an NGO by the name of Bersih led by a sassy lady by the name of Ambiga.Go figure.

  5. #5 by DAP man on Sunday, 3 July 2011 - 12:37 pm

    How true. As the writer says, “it is that draconian measures against protesters give more impetus and motivation to their cause.”

    Is Najib any different from Bashar al-Assad, Ghadafi, Mubarak, Ben Ali or Ali Abdullah Saleh.

    This has been proven in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yeman.

    When will UMNO learn.

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