MAY 2 — It is so tempting, isn’t it?
To throw up our hands and declare that this will never work. To say that’s it and throw in the towel. To lose faith completely in our fellow Malaysians and retreat into a corner, declaring that ideals can never trump human flaws.
The myth of the peaceful protest, busted?
I spent the last two days being in and out of depression. It descended on me the minute I heard of violence perpetrated by protestors at Bersih 3.0. Suddenly, my belief in the cause and the Malaysian people seemed to crumble. After all our noble intentions, are we nothing more than a mob? Yesterday, some first-hand accounts began to appear. Some of the political leaders had incited the crowd to breach the cordon, they said. The crowd surged forth. The police had no choice but to defend themselves with wave after wave of tear gas. They had to mop up the streets of violent and unruly protestors. Things were broken, cars were overturned. The myth of the peaceful protest was finally busted.
Or was it?
I hardly slept last night. I was in front of the computer until the early hours of the morning, poring over news reports, videos, pictures. Trying to make sense of the events that had dealt such a powerful blow to my faith. Then it dawned on me.
There were 250,000 plus peaceful protestors on the streets yesterday. Let that sink in. Two hundred and fifty thousand people, just like you and me. With jobs and hobbies and bills. And that was just in KL. There were scores of protestors at other locations all over Malaysia and all over the world. The Bersih banner was held aloft on top of a mountain. It was proudly displayed under the sea. It was held aloft in KL, in Penang, in Ipoh, in JB, in Kuching, in KK, in London, in Hong Kong, in Japan, in Australia, in the US, in Canada — at over 70 locations all over the world.
All peaceful, save for one. KL.
People had begun gathering 12 hours earlier in KL. You’ve seen the reports. People started pouring in on the night of the 27th. But no property was damaged in that time. No policemen were attacked in the hours leading to Bersih. There were thousands of Malaysians already near Dataran before Bersih even started. They could have breached the cordon if they wanted to, really. They did not.
A team of independent observers called the protestors ‘peaceful’ and ‘exemplary’. Read the story here.
Nor did any violence occur at 2pm, the official starting time for Bersih’s Duduk Bantah. I was there from 11am. There were thousands of people at the rallying points leading to Dataran Merdeka. No incidences of violence. People were laughing, talking, singing songs. Some exceptional young men and women were walking around with trash bags, cleaning up after other protestors. Even cleaning up trash that was there before we had started to gather. The atmosphere was festive. The camaraderie was infectious. We were Malaysians. And we were there to build a better Malaysia. Peacefully.
So what the hell happened at 3pm?
We’d spent the day in a jovial, celebratory mood. Resting with friends in the shade, I remember telling one of them that maybe the police had taken Bersih 2.0 as a lesson. Then we smelled the tear gas.
It is quite telling on the Malaysian government, I think, that a crowd of young, mostly middle-class people at a peaceful protest immediately recognised the smell of tear gas. But I digress.
At first the acid stench of tear gas was bearable. We could see the clouds of smoke in the distance. The crowd began slowly walking away. And then the canisters were fired into the crowd and all hell broke loose.
You might imagine a scene of utter chaos. Every man for himself, people stepping and clamouring over each other to reach safety, to hell with their fellow man. For a second, this was my fear.
Then the crowd proved me wrong.
Our skin stung from the chemicals, our eyes watered in pain, our breathing laboured and difficult. We had nowhere to go. People were everywhere, running, screaming, dragging their friends and family behind them.
But voices began punctuating the panic.
“Stay calm! Don’t run! Help the people beside you!” they called in both Malay and English. There were shouts in Chinese and Tamil as well, though I could not discern what they were saying.
I threw my voice in. “Sabar! Jangan panik! Makan garam! Basuh muka! Jalan! Jangan lari!” I screamed over and over, to know one in particular. A young Malay man with Unit Amal did the same, repeating the call for calm over and over in Malay.
Then the crush and pull of the crowd began to slow. People looked at us and slowed their pace. They ate the salt and washed their faces. They offered what they had to the people around them regardless of race. I saw young men and women with faces red from the pain. But they bit their lips and started looking around, helping the people around them.
A single, shining bud of hope sprang forth in my heart. “This,” my brain screamed in elation “is my Malaysia!”
People were angry, though. They were angry at the authorities for their heavy-handed tactics. What did we do to deserve this? As we tried to disperse, we were caged in, exits blocked, people forced to suffer the full effect of the burning tear gas. Isn’t the whole point of that vile fume to disperse people? Why kettle us into confined spaces and flay us with wave after wave of that noxious stuff?
Later on I read a tweet that I felt perfectly explained the situation. “They didn’t want us to disperse. They wanted us to suffer.” **
Even then, there was no violence. There was pent up anger, but no violence. We dispersed however we could. We helped whomever we could along the way. At 4pm, we made our way home.
So should we still believe in the cause? Should we still believe in peaceful protests?
I’m not going to spend any time here pointing fingers or assigning blame. There will be more than enough of that in the next few days. Accusations will fly from both sides, fantastic theories will be put forth, condemnation will spew freely from the ground. Once the dust has settled, the truth will finally emerge triumphant, bloody but never beaten. Until then, I would like to appeal to all my friends here, stay calm. Stay rational. Be patient. Let the facts emerge. Have faith in your fellow Malaysians. If we lose that, we have nothing.
Nobody said this was going to be easy. We didn’t really think we could breeze through this without having to face the tough questions, did we? Face them we must.
Can we let the action of a few undermine our noble cause? Should we tear ourselves apart pointing fingers and assigning blame, whilst our democracy and votes continue to be stolen from right under our noses? Should we descend once again into apathy and inaction because things didn’t go exactly as we planned them?
There will be some difficult questions we’ll have to answer. There are going to be obstacles and challenges. There will be room for improvement and growing pains. We must face and solve them all rationally. We will have to slog through the mud before we reach our goal. But reach it we shall
There’s a line from a movie I like to quote all the time. The movie itself is cheesy, the line, however, is not.
“Success will test a man’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary.”
Please excuse the gender specific reference. As I said, the movie’s a little cheesy. That single line of dialogue, however, is genius. It is both true and timely. We have seen some success, now it will test us to see if we are truly worthy of reaching our ultimate goal.
We cannot fail.
We must see this through, despite all obstacles and tribulations.
Stay united. Keep the belief alive. Trust your fellow Malaysians. Fight on for our worthy cause.
We will succeed.
PS In case you’re wondering, yes, an Australian Senator was in fact present at Bersih 3.0 and he was tear-gassed too. He was part of an international fact-finding mission on the electoral process in Malaysia. The team has stated that they have grave concerns about the electoral process and Election Commission. Watch the press conference here.
** Unfortunately, I was not able to find the original author of this tweet. If anyone knows, do tell so I can correctly attribute the tweet.
* Ksatriya reads The Malaysian Insider.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.