MALAYSIA: Opposition spills over into Facebook
Political dissenters use popular social networking website to organize rallies, discuss issues
The Straits Times
Thursday, December 6, 2007
By Hazlin Hassan
Facebook, the social networking site used around the world for having fun with friends, is becoming a popular avenue for political dissent in Malaysia.
To circumvent the muted coverage of opposition politics in Malaysia's mainstream media, an increasing number of people are using the site to discuss issues and announce upcoming meetings.
It adds to the growth of political blogs that are hotly debating two mass rallies in Kuala Lumpur last month, and photo-sharing websites that showed close-ups of the street protests.
Indeed, the Bersih coalition, which is calling for free and fair elections in Malaysia, created an event posting on Facebook to publicise its Nov 10 mass rally.
'The Bersih rally may be over but these Facebook groups are growing by the day, with many still active,' wrote Chua Sue-Ann in her column in online newspaper Malaysiakini. 'It's all pretty exciting stuff!'
Top names in the opposition are also using Facebook, on top of their blogs, to spread their message. They include former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who has 1,169 friends in Facebook, Mr Tian Chua of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Ms Teresa Kok of the Democratic Action Party.
Rights lawyer Amer Hamzah Arshad shared photos of a lawyers' march held in September and the Nov 10 rally with his friends on the site.
They add to a cacophony of voices that have bypassed the mainstream media, which has been cajoled and threatened by Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin not to publicise events that he said could cause 'disunity'.
The bloggers and photo-sharers scored a big victory recently.
When police said no teargas or water cannon were used on protesting Hindu crowds at the holy Batu Caves temple on Nov 25, photos on the Internet revealed otherwise.
Mainstream media covered Hindraf's mass rally in downtown Kuala Lumpur later that day but did not publish any photos of the temple protest, which happened before dawn.
The police changed their tune over the next few days, but insisted that although teargas and water cannon were used, those inside the temple were not attacked.
Mr Chua of PKR said: 'The Internet is becoming more and more important, particularly for the voiceless people who do not have access to mainstream media.'
The government line on last month's mass rallies was that the protesters were unruly and violent.
And the police said the protesters pelted them with bricks and bottles, resulting in injuries to six policemen.
But bloggers quickly disputed the government claim.
Blogger Puvanan Nadaraja wrote that witnesses were 'stunned by the heavy-handed police action'.
Another blogger, Kee Wai, said: 'The major newspapers in the country totally said nothing about the excessive force and violence that the police forces had used... I'll let the photos talk.'
The Internet buzz has helped to spread news about the rallies far beyond Malaysian shores.
As political analyst Farish Noor put it: 'While the government wrestles with yet another instance of people's power taking to the streets, another local demonstration has gone global.'