Opinion

Today, we found courage

Azrul Mohd Khalib

Azrul Mohd Khalib works on HIV/AIDS, sex and human rights issues. He is becoming cynical and is in danger of losing his sense of humour and mind. He also runs and is battling an addiction to the "A Song of Ice and Fire" book series. Azrul can be contacted at azferul@gmail.com.

MAY 2 — It started out as such a beautiful day.

My Facebook status for the morning of April 28, 2012 read “To everyone today: be safe, don’t violate the law, don’t worry and take care of each other. Oh, and good luck!”

I didn’t know that I would need a lot of that luck later and that taking care of each other would take on a whole new meaning. The experiences from that day will be one of those experiences that I will not be able to forget for the rest of my life.

Angry birds! — Pictures by Azrul Mohd KhalibAngry birds! — Pictures by Azrul Mohd KhalibOn that day, many of us became statistics. This is my story of what I saw that day and how I ended up with my mugshot being taken at Pulapol later that evening.

I was joining the Bersih 3.0 rally and had laid out my kit in preparation. Identification card, ATM card, some money in a Ziploc bag. Check. Water bottles. Check. Novel to read, in case it got boring. Check. Face mask and towel. Check.

I had my yellow Bersih T-shirt in a kitbag to wear later as I knew, from last year’s experience, that some amount of footwork would be necessary due to police roadblocks and that it would be better if I wore something light instead. So I opted to wear my black UndiMsia! T-shirt first and change later.

Bersih 3.0

After breakfast, I made my way to my designated gathering point in Petaling Street, passing roadblocks and going on foot via the road next to the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. Reaching Jalan Sultan at 10.30am, I was taken aback by the huge crowd which had already amassed in the streets effectively blocking off all access to the area. For a moment, I thought that I had the time wrong and that the rally had already started or was about to start.

The place was filled with excited, happy and enthusiastic people amidst an explosion of colour, predominantly yellow. There were people holding yellow and green flowers, paper cranes, flags and patriotic messages. Balloons were in the air.

Police officers gamely consented to being photographed.Police officers gamely consented to being photographed.In stark contrast to last year, when it was deserted and an empty ghost of itself, the street was alive with traders and shops open for business. Every trader who sold drinks, flags, Angry Birds balloons, even pieces of yellow cloth made a bundle of money that day.

The best-selling items in Petaling Street? Malaysian flags and air mata kucing! It seemed clear that nobody was going to make the same mistake of missing out on taking advantage of a bunch of people who were hungry, thirsty and hot. Business was good that day.

The festive and Mardi Gras-like scene at Dataran Maybank was a familiar one. A sea of people stretched as far as the eye could see. The roads from Puduraya all the way up to DBKL were filled with yellow and green.

People from all walks of life, old and young, stood shoulder to shoulder and sat knee to knee (it was a “bantah duduk, sit and protest” after all). A vegetable farmer from Pahang chit chatted with a lawyer from the Bar Council and an Ipoh hor fun seller. It didn’t matter what ethnic group, state or background you were from. It just didn’t matter. 

People were there because they believed in a cause and for the love they had for Malaysia. Nobody paid them to come. Almost everyone from all over the country as far away as Sabah, forked out their own money to come to participate.

One guy flew back from Melbourne just to be there that day. The home minister who complained that Bersih had become a hodgepodge of all manner of issues, from Lynas, to PTPTN loans and the MRT, was correct in saying so.

April 28 had become more than just a call for electoral reforms. It had become a rallying point to express the people’s frustration of all that had gone wrong in the country. They were there because they cared about Malaysia, her people and her future.  So many people felt that they had lost their voice in expressing their concerns to the government or worse believed that the latter was ignoring them and proceeding to treat them like ignorant children whose parents would decide which favourite son or daughter would get the choicest dish.

The rally at the entry of Dataran Merdeka and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.The rally at the entry of Dataran Merdeka and Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.In other words, the estimated over one hundred thousand people gathered around the city that day were there because they were concerned and felt that they were not “diutamakan”, that financial excesses and institutionalised corruption had continued unabated, that the country was heading towards a dirty and unfair election and that the future of the country was in peril.

I saw many children and young people that day, held in the arms and grasping the hands of parents. Naturally concerned, I asked them why they brought their children and families to the rally as it might expose them to danger.

The parents, uncles and aunties and in one case, grandparents, replied that they wanted their kids to be there, to not miss out on a historical moment, and for them to enjoy the peaceful and party-like atmosphere.

Many of them also said that they felt reassured and encouraged by the home minister saying a week earlier that the Bersih 3.0 rally was not a security threat. There was no reason for them to not bring their families along. Girlfriends brought their boyfriends. Husbands were holding hands with their wives or holding each other tight.

This was not a mob. Until that point, this was a group of Malaysians who had gathered peacefully albeit loudly, to demand to be allowed into Dataran Merdeka to assemble and express their various concerns at this location. It is a right guaranteed under the Federal Constitution. To some, the Federal Constitution might not be worth the paper it is written on. But to most of us, it is the most sacred document which guarantees our rights and responsibilities as citizens of this country.

Gathering in Dataran Merdeka, where the Malaysian flag was raised to replace the Union Jack and signal the independence of this great country, is not, was not and should not ever be considered an illegal act.

A disproportionate and excessive response

I was there at the entrance of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, less than 100m from the police barricades when the tear gas canisters started falling amidst the throng of rally participants and when the water cannons started being fired.

Despite keeping a close eye on the police personnel positioned on the top of the water cannon truck, I was still caught off-guard. I later found out through news reports that a number of people had attempted to dismantle a segment of the barricade near the Jalan Raja Laut entrance to Dataran Merdeka.

The tear gas canisters are fired and the crowd panics.The tear gas canisters are fired and the crowd panics.This was obviously a violation of the agreement made between the rally organisers and the police. This breach was obviously not sanctioned by the Bersih committee as there was a court order. Why the small number of perpetrators couldn’t simply be arrested by the police officers on duty, is beyond me. Because, what happened next, in my opinion was a disproportionate and excessive response to this breach.

The rising thick white mists and water sprays set off a pandemonium among the rally participants on a scale that I had not seen in the previous Bersih rally. The narrow street inhibited the movement of the crowd trying to get away and many fell to the ground as a result of a stampede.

With eyes stinging and being unable to draw a breath, I sought refuge in an alleyway near the Masjid India mosque while bathing my face with water. All around me, scores of people were coughing, were on their knees trying to breathe and clear the effects of the tear gas.

What was previously a carnival of colour, songs, chants and joy became a chaotic mess. Everyone was asking why the police had decided to fire tear gas into the crowd and spray the chemical water? What was the provocation? Why? Despite being in such a state, many were angry, confused and livid that it had come to this. The celebratory atmosphere had turned into one of outrage, defiance and protest.

At this point, many of those present realised that the roads behind had been sealed off and the closest public transport stations had been closed. In other words, no way to get out of the area. Many rally participants were trapped in the Masjid Jamek mosque, at the foot of Dataran Maybank and the streets of Jalan Masjid India.

The police were also going through the alleys. Their presence and the arrest of participants spread fear and panic amongst many, especially if you were wearing yellow or green. By this time, I had decided to swap my sodden T-shirt with the UndiMsia one I had in my bag.

The next hour and a half, I found myself moving through back alleys and avoiding the repeated volleys of tear gas and water cannons being fired. Strangely, I found myself among the media group and right at the police line. I felt that it would be safer to stay put and attempt to look as innocuous as possible.

The evening had taken a turn for the worse. A running confrontation had broken out between a large group of outraged, defiant rally participants and the police FRU (federal reserve unit) who were equipped in full riot gear (helmet, body armour, shields and batons) and backed up by water cannon trucks and officers equipped with tear gas.

On and on, numerous surges were made between the two sides. One side would advance while the other retreated. A cat-and-mouse game ensued. The thumping of batons on riot shields, the bump of water bottles, shoes and other projectiles being thrown, the shattering of glass, and the loud commands from the white gloved field commander atop his jeep or truck amidst the shouts of defiance and jeering from the other side were the only sounds to be heard.

The police riot control units in steady and disciplined formationThe police riot control units in steady and disciplined formationFrustration could be seen in the faces of the men in dark blue. We sometimes forget that they are human, too. Earlier I spoke to an officer who said that the men had been up since 4am and most had not eaten since breakfast. Everyone was exhausted.

Indeed, at one point when both sides were toe-to-toe, one officer shouted “Kita pun ada keluarga jugak!” “Tolong baliklah!” pleaded another. I found myself wondering how many tear gas canisters were left and how many litres of chemically laced water were still available. Because when those things ran out, there might be hell to pay. After a while, the FRU personnel in riot gear and their trucks retreated behind their lines.

It was like a battlefield. The ground was littered with the debris of the earlier celebrations. Angry Birds balloons, yellow flags and posters were among piles of shoes lost in the stampede to escape the tear gas and water cannons.

It was very clear to me that the Bersih organisers had lost control of the situation at this point. The rally participants who remained, after seeing their friends and colleagues being dragged off and arrested, were obviously outraged beyond reason and committed to a running skirmish with the police.

A cluster of Bar Council lawyers appeared to be in desperate consultation in the middle of the road in an attempt to get those remaining to leave but to no avail. It also appeared that a number of troublemakers were also purposely goading everyone on. A foreigner (I found out that he was a tourist who had just arrived from Australia the day before) even did a mocking handstand in the middle of no-man’s land between the two groups.

I was quite disquieted to see the forming of a long dark blue line consisting of young policemen whose uniforms were devoid of any names. Where there should be a patch with the name of the officer, there was only the Velcro. Mob mentality works both ways. And in that highly charged and tense situation, anything can happen. Both sides were now facing each other in opposing battle lines. Taunts, jeers, goading and mocking shouts were now coming from both parties.

It was then that the police personnel charged and started grabbing for every convenient person seen to be wearing a yellow or green T-shirt. Their treatment at the hands of these officers was unprofessional, shocking and brutal. It seemed to me that control had been lost. The earlier FRU personnel were highly disciplined, restrained and fully in control. This was totally in shocking reverse. I never thought I would see our police force behave in such a manner.

The things that I saw in that moment led me to ask myself, what were the rules of engagement? Why is this happening? Where were the senior officers or field commanders? What happened to their training, discipline and the chain of command? How can such mishandling of persons being arrested be justified? Why were they working out their anger and frustration on helpless and unarmed persons? What the hell was going on? An evil mood seemed to permeate throughout the area.

Razor wire ringed hospitality area at PulapolRazor wire ringed hospitality area at PulapolAt this point, I was a bit traumatised as a result of what I was witnessing. I decided to attempt to slowly move away from the area, and to try to reach Central Market and access the LRT from there.

It was then that I became another statistic of the Bersih rally.

I was suddenly grabbed from the back and thrown against the nearby wall. The officer who had his hand on my neck demanded to see the contents of my bag. I complied and he angrily shook out my yellow Bersih T-shirt as proof that I was a participant of the rally, which I did not deny.

I was frogmarched to the holding area behind the Royal Selangor Club (RSC) and deposited there along with others who had been arrested that day. That walk to the RSC has got to be one of the longest walks of my life.

Anyone who was detained on that day and deposited there would be able to tell you what happened to the people who went down that corridor lined with police personnel. I was one of the lucky few who emerged from the ordeal of being arrested physically unscathed.

Most were not that fortunate.

Pulapol hospitality

Our arrival at Pulapol was uneventful and we were provided with medical treatment if we wanted or needed it. The makeshift detention facility was staffed by police personnel who were stern but professional.

I looked around and saw some familiar faces: Tian Chua (of course), Wong Chin Huat, Chegubard and Prof Aziz Bari. Even the foreigner who did the handstand was here!

More than 500 people had been detained in Ops Aman 3. Despite being tired and injured from the experience and the day’s exertions, everyone seemed upbeat, energised, and even defiant.

Processing of those detained. Documentation and mugshot.Processing of those detained. Documentation and mugshot.While we waited to be processed and have our mugshots taken, food was graciously provided by our hosts and a prayer room was made available. A small team from Suhakam was also observing the documentation process and ensured that the wellbeing of those being detained was being taken care of.

During one of my quiet moments in the hours waiting for my turn to be processed, I reflected upon the irony that, several years ago, I had given lectures on human rights and humanitarian assistance to senior police officers and now I was being detained. My thanks to the Bar Council team who were providing me and many others much needed legal advice and guidance from outside the Pulapol gates.

The release of those present was later done in groups and to cheers, applause and shouts of “Hidup Bersih! Hidup Rakyat!” After nine hours of being detained, I was later released at 3.30am along with the busload of other detainees.

The silent majority

We always like to gripe about how Malaysians have become apathetic, cynical and are reluctant to be engaged, involved and participate in the building of the country. Perhaps we have grown comfortable and lazy, ensconced in the warmth of our economic progress.

Leaving Pulapol after being released.Leaving Pulapol after being released.Our leaders certainly believe in it which is why they have taken advantage of the situation for so long. But last Saturday, amongst the many people gathered there that day, the aspirations hopes and dreams for a Malaysia reborn were expressed.

It is always darkest before the dawn. All of us who were there that day share the memory of what happened.

Ask yourself this question, what made more than a hundred thousand people come out on a Saturday afternoon and commit themselves to such an action? In spite of the threats of repercussions, going through police roadblocks and a very hot day?

We were the silent majority. And we will be silent no longer.

*The views expressed here are the personal views of the columnist.

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