By LIZ GOOCH Published: August 8, 2011
KUALA LUMPUR — Her photograph has been burned by ethnic Malay nationalists, there have been calls to revoke her Malaysian citizenship and she has been threatened, via text message, with death. The movement she leads, Bersih, an alliance of 62 nongovernmental organizations pressing for electoral reform, has been declared illegal, and a demonstration that brought thousands of its followers into the streets of this capital city last month ended with nearly 1,700 arrests.
But having stared down these challenges, Ambiga Sreenevasan, 54, a University of Exeter-educated lawyer and former president of the Malaysian Bar Council, is now being hailed by many here as the “new symbol of civil society’s dissent.”
“She has not been afraid to speak the truth to power,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, an independent polling firm in Kuala Lumpur.
Over peppermint tea in a busy cafe recently, Ms. Ambiga squirmed uncomfortably at the attention she had attracted.
“This focus on me is actually ridiculous,” said Ms. Ambiga. “It’s a true citizens’ movement, because the citizens have taken ownership of Bersih.”
The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih — “clean” in Malay — got its start in November 2007. Members of the political opposition and civic groups defied restrictions on gatherings of more than five people without a permit and rallied for changes in an election system they said unfairly favored the governing coalition, which has been in power since Malaysia achieved independence in 1957.
The demonstrators were dispersed by tear gas, and some were arrested. They did not achieve their immediate demands, which included better access to the state-owned news media by opposition candidates and the use of indelible ink on voters’ thumbs to help prevent fraud. But their action was credited with winning support for the opposition and contributing to the governing coalition’s poor showing in the 2008 election, when it fell below a two-thirds majority for the first time.