The huge Bersih 3.0 crowd testified to the fact that many people no longer trust the BN government, let alone the Election Commission, to ensure free and fair elections, reports Sarajun Hoda Abdul Hassan.
What a day it was. If not for the unwarranted cruel police crackdown towards the end of the peaceful Bersih rally on 28 April 2012, it would have been the greatest festive carnival on Malaysian soil.
Unlike PM Najib’s rhetoric, this was truly an occasion the real 1Malaysia was expressed in substance and spirit. Unlike BN gatherings characterised by gifts, payments and other sponsored means, genuinely patriotic Malaysians got together, at their own expense and sacrifice, to save the nation from the clutches of unscrupulous politicians who came to power through dubious means (alleged collusion with tightly held agencies like the Election Commission and National Registration Department?). Their parties have held on to power for over five decades.
Malaysians of all walks of lives who turned up for Bersih 3.0 are Malaysians first and they so love the country that personal sacrifices are immaterial. I am not a politician, I am not a member of any political party and neither was my participation sponsored by any party. This narration therefore represents a true Malaysian’s perspective.
On the eve of the rally, I had joined MP Charles Santiago and a few other friends at the Dataran area to lend support and express Aliran’s espousal and solidarity for the university students who had already been camping there for some days. At close to 11.00pm, a group of policemen surrounded these boys and demanded that they vacate the place and move out towards the Jalan Tun Perak intersection behind the razor wire that ringed Dataran Merdeka. These youngsters obediently and peacefully moved out.
Another group of people chanting ‘Bersih’ slogans at the junction of Jalan Tun Perak and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman caught my attention. As I approached them, what I thought was a small group of people turned out to be over a thousand strong, and by close to midnight it had swelled so quickly to about 4000. They roared in exuberance, as if they just couldn’t wait till rally the next day.
The whole area was jammed with protesters, supporters of the university students, and reporters. At any one time, at least a thousand camera flashes were illuminating the darkened scene. I watched the fun from behind the razor-wire barricade, where thousands of police had already lined up. We had earlier been chased away by police but arguments that their injunction only took effect from from midnight worked in our favour for a while. As more and more police personnel began to assemble, we moved out.
The early signal was clear
As we walked back to our car parked at the Royal Selangor Club, I passed Jalan Raja beside St Mary’s Cathederal. Coincidently, a car stopped right in front of me and out stepped the Kuala Lumpur CPO Mohmad Salleh.
A senior police officer approached him and blurted out, “Boss, the crowd is too big.”
The CPO was clearly aghast, and his face turned pale as if he had just seen a ghost. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The early signals of what would come the next day were already clear.
The following day, I joined the group that started from Brickfields. By noon, there were only a few hundred Bersih supporters congregating. Several Pakatan leaders, MPs, Senators and Aduns from all over Malaysia could be seen mingling but the crowd comprised mainly NGO members and the public. The “Bersih!” chanting started and grew louder by the minute. The BN government’s later insinuation that opposition leaders had hijacked the Bersih rally was not true at all.
As the protesters strolled towards the city center, the crowd swelled. Scores of police in small groups lined the street along the way as we passed. They just stood by and allowed the people to gather and walk past without giving a helping hand to control the crowd or the traffic. That was painstakingly done by self-appointed Bersih ‘traffic marshals’ who made sure the traffic flow was not disrupted. Passing motorists honked their support adding merriment to the chanting.
A massive flood of people
People in yellow and green kept pouring in from every side into the procession like streams gushing into an overflowing river. Young and old alike, some with family members, children, people with disabilities on wheel chairs and grandparents with walking sticks.
Every other person seemed to be holding creative banners and placards or had ingenious messages printed on their T-shirts. They were clearly convinced that reforms for free and fair elections were long overdue and the BN government had not shown the political will to move the process forward. Hence the people had no choice but to join the rally and send a clear message to those in power, that the time for change has come.
Further down Jalan Sambantan, just 10 minutes later, the crowd had swelled to thousands. By the time we reached closer to the railway station, we were about 5,000-strong. Thanks to Twitter, we received minute-by-minute reports from the other starting points at Masjid Jamek, Masjid Negara, Central Market, Sogo, Jalan Sultan, KLCC and several streets around Dataran Merdeka.
By 1.00pm, we learned that the combined turnout had reach about 50,000. The smart phones were still working but they were later jammed, presumably by mobile frequency jammers. Communications between the various points completely broke down.
We walked on to Central Market. By the time we reached our destination, our own group alone had expanded to 15,000. Information from Twitter indicated that the total turnout had swelled to 100,000, and this was confirmed by Malaysiakini.
While we waited at Central Market for the signal from the organisers to proceed to Jalan Petaling, some leaders took to giving speeches. We were then joined by Bersih leaders Ambiga and her group including Aliran’s own Dr Subramaniam Pillay, who sits on the Bersih steering committee, scores more politicians and many, many more people from every walk of life imaginable. More people on wheel chairs had joined us as well.
The crowd then then moved to Jalan Yap Ah Loy and onwards to Jalan Hang Lekiu and finally to Jalan Tun Perak. The organisers had planned well. Thousands of groups were stopped at every intersection to allow our group to pass as the Bersih leaders had to go to the front. Many more notable leaders were allowed to move up to the front including Anwar Ibrahim and ex-Perak MB Nizar Jamaluddin, who was accompanied by his family including his child perched on his shoulders. Tourists on budget hotel rooftops had a field day looking down and snapping away with their cameras.
When the Bersih supporters from the other adjoining streets converged, my friends and I were jammed body-to-body packed not far from Masjid Jamek. We all sat down. Bersih leaders began speaking but only those at the front got to hear because the chanting continued non stop. It was much more boisterous than what we were accustomed to hearing at World Cup football matches.
We had our peaceful sit in while waiting for the signal that our objective had been achieved and we could then disperse. The clocked ticked – it was 2.45 pm and our phones were jammed by the signal jammers, and that prevented us from getting instructions from the organisers although, in any case, we were already preparing to leave.
Why, why, why?
Suddenly, we were shocked to see smoke rising from the front. Then message filtered through that the police had started firing tear gas and water cannons. That abruptly ended the peaceful nature of the rally. Everyone was asking everyone else, what was happening. The rally had been so peaceful and carnival like. Everyone has having such good fun; so why had the police to resort to such brutal acts?
We then saw the police firing tear gas everywhere and as the smoke rose, people ran helter shelter as the wave of people choking and crying spread faster than wild fire. Many shared salt and water with those around them. Some kind-hearted individuals on buildings helped shoot hose water from their windows.
Within seconds, I could feel a stinging sensation in my eyes and a burning sensation in my throat. A friend, John, went closer to the front to take photos and a can of tear gas landed on him. He rushed back and we shared our salt and water with him just like everyone else around us was doing.
These were touching gestures. There were no Malays or Chinese or Indians or anyone else. They were all simply Malaysians, suffering but the camaraderie among the peaceful rally members was moving. I saw an old Malay woman in tudung helping an old Chinese man, a young Chinese boy helping an old Indian man. A young Indian lad helping an old Malay man in jubah. It made me feel real good and proud to be Malaysian. This was definitely the real 1Malaysia spirit. Everyone was like a brother or sister to everyone else.
Malaysian generally are very friendly despite the diverse racial and religious differences but the divide-and-rule policy inherited by the Barisan Nasional from the colonials and still incessantly practised by them never allowed the 1Malaysia spirit to flourish. The racial profiling propagated by Barisan Nasional parties is the evil that is preventing us from loving one another. This thought haunted me for hours as I later trudged back to Brickfields to pick upmy car parked there.
Did the business people really lose business? Who was responsible?
Back to the tumultuous scene: having finished our water, we rushed to a nearby Indian restaurant for a drink. It was packed and the owner was trying hard to oblige his patrons. He was apologetic. “Sorry,” he said, ‘we have finished our food three times over and the cook is busy cooking for the fourth time.”
The BN will say traders lost business due to the rally. How untrue. Not all the shops were closed. One drinks wholesaler was seen giving away water and other aerated waters for free just as St John ambulances were also doing. May God bless them, I prayed.
As unfamiliar people grouped, freely engaging one another, all sorts of theories were brought up about what could have happened. What went wrong? I was confused too. If the government had allowed the peaceful Bersih supporters to enter Dataran Merdeka and sit for two hours, they would have themselves dispersed peacefully.
There are no shops around the area and no shops had to close and nobody would have claimed losses. Rather, the Bersih crowd was so huge, they would have themselves given plenty of business to the traders around the area.
The reason these Bersih people jammed the streets all over is that they were not allowed into the empty and vacant Dataran. It would have accommodated all. It is as simple as that but the government later dished out incredulous reasons to vilify the peaceful rally in order to – unconvincingly – justify their their wicked actions. Even if street vendors had suffered losses, was a day’s business for them more important than the collective good of the nation?
If we have free and fair elections and a two-party system with rigorous checks and balances emerges, wouldn’t the people overall truly benefit from good governance? If the corruption at higher levels is checked, wouldn’t we save hundreds of billions in callous, unscrupulous and indiscriminate government spending? Wouldn’t we all benefit more in the long run? What are we bequeathing of this country to our loved ones, children and grandchildren?
If the business fraternity had lost a lot of business as they later claimed or as they had always claimed after people’s gatherings, it was the police or Kuala Lumpur mayor who should be held responsible. Isn’t Dataran the symbol of our ‘merdeka’ freedom? Why was the KL mayor so unpatriotic in denying the people the right to peacefully gather there?
Whose peace and security? The rectangular lawn’s or the flag pole’s?
I kept on guessing. The government says the police had obtained a court injunction to prevent Bersih supporters from entering the field to preserve the peace and security. After having obtained the injunction, the upholding of the law. But whose peace and security, I kept asking myself and the friends around me. The peace and security of the rectangle green field? its grass or the flag pole? It just didn’t make any sense. Why did our courts hand out such an absurd injunction? Malaysians do not deserve peaceful sit-ins? How did the Magistrate decide?
What message were the police sending?
Minutes before the tear gas and water cannons were fired, the police who had lined the road leading to Dataran suddenly retreated creating a 50-metre space as if signalling an invitation for the Bersih people. It almost appeared as if the police had preplanned the attack. If the police had waited until until 4.00pm, the crowd would have dispersed peaceful.
Why did the police have to attack the people an hour earlier? Why did they appear to have jammed the phone reception thus preventing the message to disperse from reaching the rally participants? Why did the police suddenly, without giving ample notice, shoot tear gas everywhere, thus choking the exit points? Why did the police not have name tags? Videos showed the police just hauling anyone they could get hold from the crowd and very cruelly start bashing them up? Is this what the Malaysian government calls maintaining peace and security? Don’t the police have loved ones? Have they no human feeling?
Different sources gave different figures for the total number at the gathering. Malayskini estimated 100,000; Bersih said 250,000. My own estimate was that the sea of people clad in yellow and green T-shirts could not be fewer than 250,000. It was probably the biggest gathering in the history of Malaysia. The biggest joke the next day was the reports from the mainstream BN media which shamelessly reported the turnout at only a few thousand; the most generous estimate they could offer was 20,000. I had a good laugh when I heard it on TV news.
I later learned that Bersih supporters also converged in 85 cities around the World. The silliest statements came from the Home Minster, who said the police had acted professionally and from Jamil Khir who said the Saudi government would punish Malaysians by not allowing more Malaysians for the haj. Does our government think the Saudi government is as stupid as they would like to think Malaysians are?
I returned home tired but contented after having participated in a truly peaceful rally. After all, it was just to call for free and fair elections, nothing more. It does not matter if the BN continues to rule or Pakatan comes to power in the next general election as long as the government is elected in free and fair elections.
Anyway, the signal the people wanted to give was loud and clear. The huge Bersih crowd testified to the fact that many people no longer don’t trust the BN government, let alone the Election Commission, to ensure free and fair elections. But will Najib the PM listen to the people and push through real reforms? Or does he really have no will?
Sarajun Hoda Abdul Hassan is an Aliran executive committee member