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Sunday, March 6, 2016

Why I reject the Citizens’ Declaration — Gayathry

My beef has turned into curry. Together with the sedated social media conversation.

I expect political parties to make negotiations and compromises, sometimes wrongly, but they do have a constituency and I do believe in the power of the elections, through which I can tell them what I think. Now, with the NGOs, it’s another story. Who are they accountable to? How can they be effective checks and balances if they sit at the same table, not to discuss the implementation of reforms, but merely to offer legitimacy to what I think is an undemocratic group? And you can’t be leaders of influential movements and claim to be individuals only in this political move. Of course I acknowledge that we are not forced to sign the declaration so why should we make all the noise? But NGOs cannot make political decisions and expect not to be criticised, especially if supporters feel they have acted with little accountability.

So my three background settings:

1) Bersih committee met to discuss their strategy. We know the outcome. What I would like to know is if there were dissenting voices and how many. And did the wider community of NGOs discuss the declaration and the strategies post-declaration? I think the answer is no, but I’m happy to hear otherwise. Anyhow, hundreds of thousands of people have responded over the years to the call of Bersih on the streets, online, in cash or in kind. I figure they/we are far more important than Mahathir.

2) The BN government, as well as its machinery, is rotten to the core. It has to go. As Ambiga responded to a critic that Mahathir has taken them for a ride with: “We are not that stupid” — my response to those who feel they have to lecture us on the bad situation of the country, thus justifying the move: “We are not that stupid either.”

3) The Pakatan leadership has showed anything but leadership. They have done some good administrative work, but in critical political situations, they crumble. So I will not hedge my bets on them all the time.

And so, here are four reasons why I won’t be signing the declaration:

1) The main beneficiary is Umno. By involving their stalwarts and using the language of reform (which was minimal in the document), they want to present themselves as the “reformers” or the conscience of the party. Mukhriz’s statement just proves what they really wanted out of this — and that is to remove his nemesis so he can be in power. For that, they could have organised a petition among the Mahathir-loyal diehards in Umno and do what they want. And what does the BN cohort bring to the table that has tilted the power equation for the civil society? I care not for Umno and BN and have always wished for them to self-implode. So I will not sign the declaration to give Mukhriz, Muhyiddin and Mahathir (from 2M to 3M) any legitimacy.

2) Where was the consultation really? And no, its not so urgent that consultation had to be compromised. Many of us have put voices and fingerprints on calls for reforms and I firmly believe the process is as important as the outcome. To me, this Peoples’ Declaration is closer to what I think of a united and representative voice — one drawn up collectively:

The 1986 Peoples’ Declaration for Democracy (during Mahathir’s rule) was a result of a People’s Assembly, an open and consultative process. I support that. The Bersih demands are also a result of consultation and a determined campaign, which I fully support. But not this Mahathirism document which appears to have been done quickly and quietly. So I will not sign the declaration that was not conceived of openly and with little citizens’ input.

3) The “what is the alternative” argument is a false choice. It is not this or nothing at all. We have options and we can mobilise through different means. Yes, some people would rather not have demonstrations but it is legitimate form of political expression; as are campaigns and continuous political pressure — they all work in combination. So I take offence at those in support of the declaration initiative whose retorts are that the rest of us are doing nothing or that people who stake their claims on the elections are not really empowered. Belittling your allies and worse still, citizens, is not the hallmark of a strong civil society.

This declaration may be a path for some, but please do not present it as the only option available at this point. So I will not sign the declaration because I will take the other paths available to me.

4) A rather sensitive issue has also come up — the endorsement of those who have suffered in the hands of Mahathir and who have said they are willing to let go to focus on the big picture. I have always been inspired by the activists and politicians who fought for and paid with their freedoms. That they have decided to forgive Mahathir and let the past be, must have taken tremendous strength on their part. We admire them for that. But there are many who have suffered in different ways, and to different extents as a result of an unjust system. The accountability needs to have a face and a mechanism for those who have been wronged, to seek justice.

The short-term letting-go needs to be turned into a proper form of holding those in power, responsible. A formal reconciliation process is needed for so many of the ghosts of the past. That hasn’t happened and doesn’t seem to be on offer. Mahathir has not been held accountable for his actions. It is not enough for me to hear how a few say they forgive him, to justify this declaration of Mahathirism. So I will not sign it.

Opinion by Gayathry Venkiteswaran

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