Lee Way Loon & Koh Jun Lin
7:44PM Sep 30, 2012
Organisers estimated the turnout today at 8,000, while both the media and the police were more conservative with an estimates of 3,000.
What was beyond doubt however was that this rally was a roaring success compared to past ones against the plant, that had usually only drawn hundreds.
The venue of the action is relatively isolated, being located on the southeastern end of the peninsula and connected to the outside world by only two or three main roads.
It is a five-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur and one hour from Johor Baru, via the Senai-Desaru Expressway that was completed in June last year.
Some of the protesters came by the busloads from far-flung places such as Perlis on the opposite end of the peninsula to show solidarity with movement.
Protesters from Raub, Pahang, also came in honour of representatives from Pengerang who made the trek up for the Himpunan Hijau Raub rally on Sept 3 against the use of cyanide in gold mining.
“Our original target was 10,000 people. Though only 8,000 people turned up, I think it is a very successful rally,” said Himpunan Hijau Lestari Pengerang chairperson Anis Afida Mohd Azli.
‘Malays scared to protest’
Despite the optimistic turnout, challenges remain in mobilising grassroots support against the project.
“The areas affected by the Rapid project include ten ethnic Malay villages and about four ethnic Chinese villages. That is about 24,000 people in total – 20,000 Malaysian Malays and 4,000 Malaysian Chinese.
“Amongst the locals who attended the rally, about 70 percent are Chinese,” said Anak chairperson Mazlan Aliman when contacted.
He said the Malays are intimidated by Umno leaders and village chiefs, but said they should be bolder in defending their rights because they have a larger stake in this issue.
Mazlan (right), who is also a PAS central committee member, pointed out that Pengerang is an Umno fortress like much of the rest of Johor, with ten Felda settlements in the constituency to serve as vote banks.
On the eve of the rally, Pengerang MP Azalina Othman was at the rally venue distributing party flags to some 50 bikers, who then paraded through town with their engines revved in a show of force.
Even as today’s rally ended, Umno and BN flags left at Dataran Sungai Rengit still fly.
Of Pengerang’s over 35,000 voters, 88 percent are Malay while about 10 percent are Chinese. During the last general election, Azalina won uncontested when her PKR opponent withdrew at the last minute.
Azalina has defended the Rapid project heatedly in the face of rising resistance, condescendingly rebutting on several occasions that the project is safe and urging local residents to reject what she claimed was incitement from the outside, even blaming foreigners for joining the rally.
Fighting Rapid through ballot box
Regardless, many outsiders did turn up at Pengerang today to show solidarity to the locals who are facing serious environmental and other challenges from the Rapid project.
Although they may not in the long run be able to do much to help the local residents much in the battle, they did bring valuable lessons in resistance and democratic change.
At the rally, representatives from Bersih, Bukit Koman Anti-Cyanide Committee, and Himpunan Hijau Kuantan all urged Pengerang voters to value their vote and use it to reject authoritarianism and environmentally harmful projects.
Although the anti-Rapid movement seems to be picking up steam, civil society movements usually take time before its cause enters national consciousness, Kuantan’s anti-Lynas movement perhaps being an exception.
The anti-cyanide movement in Raub for example took five years before it entered the limelight and drew 10,000 protesters to the sleepy heartland town.