A harrowing first encounter, but an overall notable experience inspiring her to do more.
My Bersih 3.0 story started with Becca, me and my mum sleeping over in a hotel room the night before the rally. My mum was in town to deliver a lecture, and Becca and I just tagged along because we were worried that the public transport might be closed down later.
We left the hotel room around 8am the next morning, having prepared small packets of salt and towels soaked in saline solution. We took the train to Pasar Seni station. On the way there, we spotted road blocks and FRU trucks, and got very nervous.
There was quite a crowd at both the Masjid Jamek and Pasar Seni stations. And this was before 9am. Remember, the rally was only supposed to begin at 1pm or so. As fellow LoyarBurokker Jo Fan so wisely tweeted,
After meeting up him, we then also met up with Kelvin, Yiing Huey and Cheryl – all UndiMsia regulars. With the exception of Jo Fan, we were all first-time Bersih demonstrators. We chilled in the KFC on Jalan Sultan for a while, before deciding to get up and move around. We walked to the barricade next to the Bar Council building, where the #OccupyDataran camp was situated.
At around 12.30pm, we joined the huge crowd at Jalan Sultan. The atmosphere was festive – people were shouting slogans like “Hidup Rakyat” and “Bersih Bersih” as we walked. We ended up outside the Bar Council building again at about 1.30pm. Then we sat down on the ground, as we promised we would. The shouting and singing continued. We sang the Negaraku twice, with more spirit than I ever mustered throughout my high school days.
We did, at some point, shout something like “buka pintu”, but it didn’t feel serious. Nobody was going to force the police to do anything. That was what it felt like at that point.
After 2pm, everyone started to get restless. It was boiling, the sun was merciless, and there was absolutely no shade. Cheryl had gotten separated from us, but we knew she was with a group of her friends. So now it was just me, Becca, Yiing Huey, Jo Fan and Kelvin. I should also mention that at that time, my 3G wasn’t working so I couldn’t refresh my Twitter feed. The others didn’t appear to have any problems, however.
We agreed to try to move towards Masjid Jamek. It was quite a crush, as there were so many people, but it was much shadier here because there were more trees/tall buildings/LRT tracks. We got as far as the McDonald next to the LRT tracks, and then had to stop to rest. We were still about 100m from the barricade, but that was as close as we were going to get.
It was about 3pm then, and suddenly there was a loud noise and everyone around us started yelling and booing. We saw white plumes of smoke going up in the distance. It was unmistakeably tear gas. Everyone moved to the back so that the people in front could retreat. I remember being on guard, because the rally was supposed to disperse at 4pm and there was still an hour to go. All signs had indicated a peaceful rally thus far. Everyone in my group got out whatever they had prepared to counteract the tear gas – towels, salt, masks and such. And I had so hoped we wouldn’t have to use them!
More shots came. People started moving faster and faster. I felt my eyes sting for the first time. We made a left turn (I really am not familiar with the roads in KL!) and continued running. And so it was like that for the next 45 minutes or so -we’d stop and rest, and then suddenly we’d hear a pop and people would start running again, and our eyes and noses and throats would sting. However there was no panic stampede, and we stopped to offer salt to anyone who needed it.
After a while, we found we didn’t have to run anymore. At that point we were already at the Raja Chulan monorail station. It was 3.45pm and we figured the rally was over. So we headed to the nearby KFC to rest and recuperate, and for everyone to take turns charging their phones. When all had enough battery to load Twitter accounts (mine had no problems loading now), we found to our shock that tear gas was still being fired at places all around Dataran Merdeka.
This was probably the coolest part of the day: We looked at each other, and said, “Let’s head back. We have to go back.” There was no hesitation, but no heroics either. We still had plenty of salt, water, and adrenaline to keep us going. We considered it our duty as part of the crowd to make sure that everyone got away safe. Fear and fatigue were not part of the equation: we had to go back. Some of us had spare t-shirts, so we soaked them in water and ran aaaaaalll the way back to Dataran Merdeka.
It was probably closer to 5pm when we turned into Persiaran Maybank, right next to Menara Maybank. And right ahead, at the junction of Jalan Tun Perak, there was a huge FRU truck that had its warning siren flashing. The truck was facing some point further up Jalan Tun Perak. But several protestors among us were screaming insults at them and even throwing stones. Here’s a 30-second clip I took.
Like I said in the video description, the guy at 0.03m is Kelvin and he was NOT the one shouting ‘babi’. I wasn’t sure what I was shooting when I began recording this video, so I wasn’t poised to catch the inflammatory protesters on video. There was also this protester (an Indian man) who started throwing stones at the FRU, and a few others emulated him, and I didn’t manage to get that either.
Sigh, the failures of citizen journalism! And I am a young journalist, so that’s worse – but in my defence I’ve only ever worked with print media, never photo or video journalism!! I did, however, manage to catch that Chinese girl in the white t-shirt (0.10m) chanting ‘bodoh, bodoh’ at the top of her voice.
We shushed them immediately. You’ll hear Yiing Huey at 0.15m saying sternly, “Don’t provoke them, they are MALAYSIANS, don’t provoke them!” The rest of what we did was off video (because they rang the warning bell and I panicked -_- they did fire, but not at us). I stood in their way and told them, “Jangan menghasut mereka, jangan menjadi batu api”.
Becca said angrily, “Look around you, there are women and kids standing near you. Do you really want them to fire tear gas or water cannons this way, and put their lives in danger too?” They stopped after that. Perhaps they felt ashamed. Becca thinks it was because we were younger than them.
Shortly after that, fortunately, the FRU began retreating. They got back into their trucks and went off in the opposite direction down Jalan Tun Perak. Some of the protesters cheered them as they left. We heard this really loud banging noise, and Jo Fan or Kelvin (I’m not sure who) shouted in horror, “Oh my god, they’re banging on the FRU trucks!” And we could see the sides of the FRU trucks shaking and rattling. There were a few scary moments when we thought they were going to jump back out and fire on us, but nothing untoward happened. They got lucky that time.
We then ran up Jalan Tun Perak, in the direction that the FRU had fired. We were calling out “Salt, garam, anybody needs some?” And we walked through the streets like that, offering salt and water. There was some residual tear gas in the wind, but nothing really debilitating. We didn’t encounter any cops. The stores started opening again. We then headed back to Pasar Seni station. It was close to 6pm by then.
Then we met up with Cheryl and her friends. All were safe, but they had a horrible story to tell. They had been eyewitnesses to the Sogo incident in which the police car ploughed into some innocent protesters sitting by the side of the road, because its wind shield was broken. I don’t want to post the video here, because it was horribly traumatizing to watch (I broke down and cried), and I think you’ll find it easily enough. They had also witnessed protesters chasing after three cops, simply because they outnumbered the cops.
What are we trying to say here? I’ve had just over 24 hours to think things over. Yes, the police were brutal beyond reason. But from what I’ve seen and heard (personal encounters as well as Cheryl’s story), I don’t think the protesters were completely blameless for the violence. There were definitely rowdy demonstrators among us on 428. These people we met were ready to thump on FRU trucks as they were retreating, throw stones at them when they were looking the other way, chase cops and jump the barricade just because they have the strength of the majority. It was cowardly behaviour.
I think that Bersih 2.0 woke people up to the need for electoral reform, and that’s great. But the events of 709 also demonized the police and FRU; the violence of that day was mainly the fault of the police. And so on 428 some people turned up, already antagonized towards the law enforcers. Furthermore, hundreds of people have died in police custody over the years.
I’m just saying that I can understand where these people ‘might’ becoming from. But I’m not saying it’s justified. Both police and protesters alike should have known to never rise to any kind of provocation. I don’t think any of the police enjoyed being there. For the moment, I’m not entertaining the idea that members of the Special Branch might have been the instigators, because I’m fairly sure that the provokers we ran into on Persiaran Maybank were not, and there’s not enough evidence to support that anyway (from what I’ve heard so far).
Cheryl’s story scares me because any one of us might have been the ones the policeman ran over because of his broken windshield – and that happened because of the protesters’ provocation. Indirectly, someone was hurt because of provocative acts of the protesters. Cheryl and her friends came very close to getting hurt (they were 10 metres away from the scene when it happened). They might have made up the minority of the protesters that day. But there were enough of them.
Because of inflammatory people like the ones my group ran into – people who were ostensibly looking for a fight – many lives were endangered. It could seriously have been anyone I knew, because we were all running mad without direction. We could have ended up at Sogo or something.
We had a long long chat over dinner about this with Pepper Lim. All of us were a bit shocked and disappointed by what we had seen that day. Do we still believe in the right to have public rallies as a means of expression? Yes, very much so. Rallies are a protest of the last resort – and here in Malaysia, everything else has been exhausted. There is no other method of redress for our grievances. We only have the right to rally left. For that very reason we shouldn’t waste it.
We just want to point out to rally organizers that we have to promote good rally behaviour every bit as much as the rally itself. Here in Malaysia, every action is incendiary – anything at all, from your face to your shoes – anything can cause you to get in trouble with the enforcers. We really don’t need to make it any worse. Let’s not make a bad name for Bersih, which is really one of the best movements for change in this country.
To end on a good note, here’s the picture of the five of us at the end of the day. I’m so glad to have gone with them for my first rally – they are some of the most amazing people I met. These people were calm enough to shout, “DON’T RUN, DON’T PANIC” and offer salt to those suffering from tear gas effects, and brave enough to turn right around and head back into the fray. They more than made up for the ugly Malaysians we encountered.
In all the madness, I recalled the war poems I studied in English Literature class. Thomas Hardy saw the enemy as a friend under other circumstances. W.B. Yeat’s Irish airman admitted that he did not hate those whom he fought against. And of course, Wilfred Owen’s well known scream of panic resonated deeply with me today: “Gas, GAS!”
They inspired me. I hope we did them proud. I feel like we lived, on some small scale, the stories of humanity in the midst of war. Because of these four people, I’m not put off by what I experienced on 428. I’d readily do it again – and again and again – until we see the changes we need.
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