WHEN Bersih 3.0 was first announced, the consensus was that the authorities would react in the same way they did with Bersih 2.0, which was to declare the movement illegal and to clamp down hard, in a shock-and-awe style show of force.
We know how that panned out. Nobody was shocked. In fact, the authorities acted just as everybody thought they would. No one was awed either. The government's high-handed approach only served to motivate civil society, which showed up in full force.
So, what did we end up with? YouTube videos of people getting tear-gassed. Facebook Pages created in tribute to an old woman who was doused with chemically-laced water. Bad press around the world.
You would have thought the authorities would have learned from their poor handling of the situation. But people are cynical and many whom I spoke to said the government wouldn't know how to handle Bersih 3.0 any better than it did Bersih 2.0.
Then, all of a sudden, the critics seemed to have been proven wrong when the home minister gave the OK, saying the movement was not a threat. Perhaps the government had wised up after all. Maybe it's not quite as stuck in the old ways of thinking as its critics claim it to be.
But sure enough, days before the planned sit-in, it's déjà vu. You have the mayor threatening some unspecified action to be taken against Bersih if it goes ahead with its plans. You have the police rejecting Bersih's request because of "safety reasons". And you have the usual suspects coming out of the woodwork to pour scorn on the movement and deride its leader, S. Ambiga.
Bersih has made clear that what it wants to do is to have a sit-in at Dataran Merdeka. They plan to be there for two hours. Then, they will get up and go home. Nobody's planning to do an "Occupy Dataran" like those university students.
What will happen on April 28, nobody knows. The best guess is that we'll see the police and the Federal Reserve Unit blocking off roads that lead to Dataran Merdeka. Perhaps the LRT trains will not stop at stations near the square, in a bid to make it harder for people to get there.
But you can't seal off the entire city. And if people can't get there by car or train, they will walk. Eventually, groups of people will come face to face with the police. Some will inevitably try to breach the blockade.
How the police and FRU react will be tweeted, Facebooked, Flickred, Instagrammed, blogged, YouTubed and reported around the world. That much, you can be sure.
And if any political adviser to the government thinks that images of peaceful protesters getting manhandled, being sprayed by water cannons and choking from tear gas is not going to affect how Middle Malaysia votes, that person needs to find a new profession.
If the general election is going to be held in June, as many expect it to be, the government would do well to seriously think out of the box when it comes to dealing with Bersih. Any kind of harsh clampdown on a peaceful movement, made up of people from all walks of life, is bound to generate a negative reaction even among those who are sitting on the fence, politically speaking.
For Bersih 2.0, Malaysians in a handful of cities around the world donned yellow T-shirts and held peaceful protests in solidarity with their counterparts back home. This time the number of cities where Malaysians will be holding Bersih 3.0 events has ballooned to 70.
That should be food for thought for whoever is advising the government on how to deal with Bersih 3.0, which is ostensibly about election reform but has grown into a broader, all-encompassing, civil liberties movement.
If tens of thousands of Malaysians were willing to show up for Bersih 2.0 despite a massive police crackdown, hints of violence from a martial arts organisation and threats of a counter protest from a rights group, you can be sure the even bigger crowd gearing up for Bersih 3.0, will not be easily cowed.
Former US President Ronald Reagan said, "There are simple solutions, just not easy ones." Well, I've got a simple solution for the government, though it might not be an easy one for it to swallow: Let Bersih use Dataran Merdeka.