As I marched, I witnessed…
KUALA LUMPUR, May 2 — My first rally was on June 4, 2010. I was part of the thousands of Malaysians who rallied outside the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur to protest against Israel’s attack on an aid flotilla heading for Gaza. I figured that was the least that I could do for the Palestinians.
My second was Bersih 2.0 on July 9, 2011. I was in Melbourne at the time, so I took the opportunity to join the crowd in Federation Square. It was a peaceful gathering. No tear-gassing, no barbed wired, no provocations, no fear. It was nothing like what I experienced last Saturday during Bersih 3.0.
Last Saturday made me recall a popular Malay proverb, which says “hujan emas di negeri orang, hutan batu di negeri sendiri, baik lagi negeri sendiri”. Basically it means, although the grass may seem greener in other countries, our country is always better. This, however, does not seem to be the case, judging by what happened during the peaceful assembly last Saturday.
I woke up on Saturday morning with the realisation and enthusiasm that there were two important occasions on that day. Number one, it was my beloved mother’s birthday and two, it was Bersih 3.0. I decided to follow my brother to get the real experience, to be a part of the crowd. At around 9.30am, my brother was already at the front door with my cousin preparing to leave. “I can’t wait for you. The LRT is going to be closed anytime. You better arrange something with Dad.” I felt a bit down as that was my only chance to be with the crowd because my father had told me earlier that he would only observe from the car. Hoping that he would change his mind, I put on my yellow Bersih T-shirt just to get in the spirit and followed him.
We arrived at the PAS building at around 11.10am and there were already so many people in yellow, gathering around the building. After much consideration, my father decided to march alongside his colleagues. At 11.45pm, we walked from Jalan Raja Laut heading to Dataran Merdeka. The number of people who joined us while walking together stunned me. The crowd was massive and it grew bigger and bigger as we passed the streets. The jovial crowd of different ages, various races, were all chanting “Bersih, Bersih”, “Hidup Rakyat” and singing peacefully while exchanging friendly greetings. It was a highly spirited sea of people in a lively carnival-like atmosphere, gathered for a good cause. I was really very proud to be part of it.
We were at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman when the crowd was asked to stop walking. “Berhenti, Berhenti!!!” From where I was standing I could see nothing but countless heads that were all taller than me. I sneaked further upfront to get a better view of what was going on. There were a number of human barricades made by the police forces that stood straight up in their uniforms with serious faces. We were all asked to sit and be patient while the lawyers and leaders did their best trying to negotiate with the police to let us pass through. It was 12.20am and the sun was blazing hot as I stared in admiration at the lawyers who were all suited up. How could they stand the heat with their blazers on? I guess it’s true when they say “It pays to look good”. I kept the thought to myself. After awhile, we were allowed to pass through.
We continued marching together until we were few metres away from Dataran Merdeka. A few leaders gave their speeches using loudhailers while the crowd cheered and applauded. Many times we were asked to sit and stand again. Sit and stand. I heard a man who was probably tired of being asked to sit and stand at random intervals (in Terengganu dialect) “Kejak duduk kejak bangungg, susohh ngakk dudukk jelahhh!!”(One time you ask us to sit and one time you ask us to stand. It’s difficult. Just let us sit down i.e there is no need to stand up). Everyone who understood let out a big laugh.
More than twice, the FRU Trucks and police car came out of nowhere. Obliged to make way for them, the busting crowd grew impatient and started cursing out loud. Some even threw empty bottles but the leaders played a good role controlling and calming the crowd saying that it is a form of provocation and we should not give in. We were reminded to stay away from any provocations.
At 1.20pm an announcement was made that now it is time for Zuhr prayers. A group of men before me performed the ablution using just mineral water. The non-Muslims were really respectful and made some space for the Muslims to pray. When the prayers were completed and the ‘doa’ was read out loud, everyone kept silent. It felt just right. To me even the simplest things like this could move us deep inside.
After some time, I tried searching for my father but he was nowhere to be seen and to add insult to injury, my phone was out of battery. Tired, I sat together with the crowd while my eyes wander off searching for familiar faces. Suddenly, I saw a long-lost primary school friend trying to make her way through the crowd. I screamed out her name and we embraced each other. Who would’ve known, in the swarm of hundreds of thousands, I could have bumped into an old friend. Funny how random that was but I was really glad. We made our way passed the crowd to be at the front. We could clearly see Dataran Merdeka guarded by armed policemen; there was barbwire, razor wire, FRU trucks. I felt like a prisoner in my own country. Finally, after squeezing through the crowd aimlessly, I found my father, said goodbye to my old friend and observed the crowd grow louder as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim arrived. We were all waiting for Anwar’s speech when out of the blue, there was a commotion and I could hear people screaming “Lari, Lari!!” (Run, run!!) with panick-stricken faces.
In a matter of seconds, smoke came out from the middle of Dataran Merdeka, canisters of tear gas were shot and at the same time, water cannons were sprayed directly towards the innocent crowd. I was confused to why the police didn’t issue a warning before firing the shots. I stood still staring at the chaotic crowd, to ensure what I’m seeing before my eyes was real. Realisation hit me when my father grabbed me by the hand and we ran as fast as we could together with the crowd. With all our might, we jumped over fences and I felt really bad stepping on the flowers planted beautifully alongside the curb but I had no other option. My teary eyes and throat were hurting. Pounding fast, it felt like someone ripped my heart out, and for a second, I thought I would die due to breathing difficulties. The temporary pain was unbearable. While running, my father coolly repeated “It’s okay, it’s okay” while patting my head. Having my father by my side, I felt safe. I took a look around and saw people still running with their bloodshot eyes and tired faces, like a scene in a movie. Except that this, was real. In the midst of the chaos I could clearly recall how the crowd was helping each other out. Some offered salt, some offered mineral water and some offered words of comfort. It was truly a united feeling and concerted effort made for Bersih 3.0.
We headed towards the PAS building, joining a number of people who were already gathered there. The leaders remarked that this was not the end of their fight. Despite being tear-gassed, despite the brutality and forces used against them, the people, who were also representing the voice of many more, have won the battle just by coming down to support Bersih. My caring friends and relatives were all tweeting/texting and calling me. “Be safe, take care”. I bet many others got that from their friends and families as well.
I was having late lunch with my father, aunt and uncle at a restaurant nearby when my brother and cousin joined use. They told us that they were on the other side of Dataran Merdeka when the tear gas and water cannons were fired. They couldn’t run as they were stuck in the middle of the crowd. They ended up hugging each other because there was nothing else they could do and they could barely see their surroundings due to the thick smoke resulting from the ongoing tear gas and water cannons fired. Alas, they managed to squeeze out of the crowd and found a small ‘lorong’ and ran as fast as they could. While running, they stumbled upon a bottle of Mirinda Orange and out of desperation they took the bottle and washed their faces with it to ease the burning pain. I felt sorry for them but at the same time, that was a real experience and we laughed!! The rest of the time was spent sharing everyone’s experience. That got me thinking about the people who were in a far worse situation, badly injured. I pray to God to ease their pain, to make things easier for them. While sharing our experiences, my brother suddenly said that something fishy had happened. Strange enough, the police did not fire the tear gas at the people who crashed the barricade to get inside Dataran, instead they focused on the people who were outside of that area. It is probably true when people said that the provocations came from the plain-clothes policemen themselves who pretended to be protesters.
The next morning, I grabbed a few newspapers. Front pages of the leading papers had pictures of an overturned police car, ugly pictures of damaged property and harm done to the police were shown. Violent protesters were well portrayed. They might have fooled some readers who were not at the scene, but for more than 200,000 people who gathered and marched on the historical day, we know what really happened. The people will continue to rise and the truth will prevail.
However, let us not forget the people who strongly opposed Bersih. I try to respect their views. But people who has no basis and whined about how stupid Bersih was, for causing massive traffic jam and “Like oh my god I can’t go shopping or watch a movie, KLCC, SOGO, etc. The train stations are closed because of Bersih” also “Buat apa nak sibuk demo? Awak tu student. Duduk diam-diam study lah” (Why join the demo? You’re a student. Just sit quietly and study) annoyed me to the core. Try telling that to the sea of people who came down. At least they believe in something. Last Saturday could have been another lazy day but these people chose to make a difference. They offered in their energy, time, and money and even went to the extent of risking their own safety to march in together for a good cause, free and fair election. Each and every single soul who came down was brave in their own way. This is one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had and I’m glad that I was chosen to be part of Bersih 3.0.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.