Bersih co-chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasan, fresh from a laudation received from prestigious international weekly The Economist, told an overflow crowd of diners in Ipoh last night that the government's current offensive against NGOs has escalated to include niggling harassment of the polls reform advocacy group she helps steer.

"In the last couple of weeks, three of our steering committee members going abroad have had their passage through immigration stalled without good reason," disclosed the former Bar Council president to some 1,000 people who paid to attend a dinner at which she was the principal guest and speaker.

NONEThe event was organised by a community development NGO centred in Ipoh in which single parents are active.

Ambiga told her brimming audience she viewed this treatment of Bersih's leaders as part of a general pattern of escalating harassment by the authorities that in recent weeks has seen NGOs like Suaram come under carping scrutiny.

The senior lawyer's rising stature as an iconic presence among politically unaffiliated groups in the country campaigning for reform to outdated processes gained an unexpected fillip when The Economist, in its latest edition, included her among a slew of Asian campaigners who it said had emerged from left field to launch reform-seeking crusades.

Judging from the racial and gender diversity of the crowd that paid to hear her speak in a posh hotel in the Perak capital last night, the reputable international newsweekly was not off the mark in speculating about the reason for her appeal in its regular Banyan column that highlights roiling public concerns in Asia.

It said that ordinary citizens in some Asian nations appear to be responding favourably to the exertions of crusaders who have emerged from outside established political streams to fight obsolete and ossified structures.

Bersih's concert on Oct 12


At the dinner last night, Ambiga deftly sought to leverage on this popular appeal by urging the crowd to continue supporting Bersih even if the opposition Pakatan Rakyat comes to power for, she said, a clean electoral roll is the foundation of democratic representation.

She said that nearly six months after an impressive turnout for the polls reform group's demonstration in Kuala Lumpur last April, the Election Commission has yet to concede ground on the eight reforms to the electoral process the group has been campaigning for over the past five years.

"However, in fairness it must be said that the EC has agreed to the use of indelible ink," she conceded.

"But the ink will be applied before a voter marks the ballot and not after," said Ambiga, who observed that this was rather an odd turn to what is considered regular procedure.

She did not detail her reasons for thinking the sequence strange but left the impression that even when the EC has conceded on a reform, the door is left open for possible chicanery.

Ambiga urged the crowd to turn up for the concert that Bersih will organise at the Kelana Jaya stadium in Selangor on Oct 12 to ratchet up the public pressure for polls reform.

"We have to have polls reform before the 13th general election and not after," she said to rousing applause from the audience.

Ambiga thanked the public for the support and encouragement they had shown her during a period earlier this year when she was the target of crass and lewd behaviour mounted by groups resentful of Bersih's success at mounting a demonstration of impressive size in Kuala Lumpur on April 28.