Soalan ditanyakan. Jawapan disediakan
The question has been asked. The answer is ready
I live in Kuala Lumpur, currently. My 32-hour stopover in February wasn’t enough, so seven weeks and six countries later, I came back. I’m here temporarily, but for a longer period of time than I spend in most places. I’ve been exploring the city, learning Malay, cooking and eating epic food, following lizards around, and waking up next to someone I’m completely smitten with. And last Saturday afternoon I found myself in front of the Lotus Hotel in the city centre, surrounded by protesters who had just been tear gassed.
Behind me, two young women were crying “Allāhu Akbar.” I got out of the way as a trampled body was carried into the hotel. Bottles of water were thrown to the street from the upstairs windows, and eventually a couple of emergency fire hoses were aimed from them as well, to cheers from the crowd down below. Protesters offered salt and water to each other. Riot police paced at the corner of the street, so I figured I wasn’t going anywhere for a while. Masjid Jamek LRT station was closed, but its metal shutters had been broken by people desperate to escape the gas, and police would later follow them in to beat them.
Hotel provides water to tear gas victims
I’d lost my friends shortly after the tear gas came out. We’d been heading towards the front of the demonstration when the first cloud of smoke appeared, and we’d turned back at once. When Kaz and Tom stopped at the corner to help trapped protesters escape over a railing, I was swept up in the rush. I was touched that strangers had wanted to protect me. I also felt a little sad and awkward at one point when I overtly received special attention because I was a foreigner, even though others around me had been considerably more affected by the tear gas. I had a face mask and a bottle of salt water, and had made it around the corner before things got worse and panic spread.
Panic as protesters try to get over barrier
Some Bersih basics: the Malay word for ‘clean’, Bersih is a movement for cleaner and fairer elections. Although some news outlets call it an opposition movement, that’s misleading – its supporters do include political parties, but the two categories are hardly interchangeable, and certainly plenty of protesters resent what they see as attempts by the opposition to hijack the movement. Bersih’s demands to clean up the electoral process are pretty basic, even boring: they’re not calling for anyone to resign, they’re not calling for regime change. They’re calling for things like indelible ink at polling stations. It is, therefore, quite hard to fathom why so much aggression is aimed at the movement, particularly its co-chair, Ambiga Sreenevasan, the recipient of numerous death threats.
Election Commission cheating voters. Resign!!!
Bersih 3.0, held this past Saturday, was intended to be a rally at Dataran Merdeka, a public square in central KL, but the authorities closed it off. Just a few days before Bersih, they offered a couple of alternative venues. These were far from the centre of town, hard for people to access, and too short notice for the Bersih organisers to change their plan, but still enabled the authorities to claim that they had made a reasonable offer. In the absence of access to Dataran Merdeka, the goal of Bersih was simply to hold a symbolic march to the barricades.
We arrived early in the morning: the roads into the city centre were expected to be closed and we suspected the LRT might be shut down as well. Although we came prepared for arrests, tear gas and water cannons, the initial atmosphere was friendly and upbeat, with participants of all ages. The state-controlled Star newspaper eventually put the numbers at 100,000; the Bersih steering committee considered it to be more like a quarter of a million. Thousands of protesters were dressed in yellow for Bersih, and many were in green to show opposition to the toxic plant in Kuantan owned by the Australian corporation Lynas. Several dozen postal workers passed by on motorbikes, sounding their horns in support of Bersih and getting cheers in return. A ninja dressed all in yellow sped past on foot. Yellow and green Angry Birds balloons were a feature, with Bersih and anti-Lynas slogans written on them in marker pen. In maroon shirts, the Unit Amal people, employed by PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party), were there to act as security for the protesters and ensure that things went peacefully. (Faiq: “Those are some brave motherfuckers.”)
Protesters gather in front of Central Market
Aunties wait for the march to begin
Unit Amal on stage before the march
Protesters on the march, with the crowd reflected in the building behind
About half an hour – if that – after the march commenced, we came to a halt and sat down in the street near Masjid Jamek. There was some confusion as to what was going on. We learned later that Ambiga had made a speech round about then to say that Bersih had achieved its goal of getting as close to Dataran Merdeka as possible, and that the crowd should now disperse. We had no idea where she was or that she had said anything, and a lot of protesters were finding that they couldn’t access or share information via Twitter, prompting suspicions of frequency jammers in the vicinity. This was when we started heading towards the front to see what was going on.
The first tear gas canister was fired in response to a small number of protesters crossing the barricades to Dataran Merdeka. (Footage has subsequently incriminated Anwar Ibrahim of PKR, another opposition party, as having given a signal for this to take place. He denies this.) A few minutes later, however, tear gas was fired at the protesters en masse, causing widespread fear and panic, and endangering thousands of lives. PAS has accused police leaders of spreading a false rumour of an officer’s death to incite aggression against the protesters. On the flipside, the police’s excessive use of tear gas and chemical-laced water cannons was easily enough to provoke protesters, but additionally a police car lost control and crashed into two of them, adding to the rage. (They overturned the car: reports vary as to whether this was out of anger or because someone was believed to be trapped beneath it.) There was also the potential that, just as we’d seen men in yellow Bersih shirts harassing Ambiga at a debate a few nights previously, there could be plants among the legitimate Bersih protesters, aiming to cause trouble and discredit the movement. In any case, a back and forth continued for several hours; Kaz saw police kicking the shit out of one man for ten seconds before the crowd surged forward to rescue him. In light of all this, the home minister’s claim that police acted with “utmost restraint” was laughable, and while the Malaysian media continue to promote this line, international outlets have a different take on it: Al Jazeera’s equipment was smashed while documenting police brutality, while Malaysian TV channel Astro found itself at the centre of a censorship scandal after tampering with a BBC World report on Bersih. An Australian senator (invited by Anwar), who was tear gassed along with the rest of the crowd, was predictably unimpressed (although the Malaysian media attempted to discredit him based on a combination of his support for LGBT rights and made-up allegations of Islamophobia), and Human Rights Watch said that the government “should stop patting itself on the back and investigate why unnecessary force was used.”
This reggae club only let white people in when protesters were fleeing the tear gas last July. And who’s that on the roof this time? Why, a whole bunch of white people! I am just saying.
Long after leaving the scene, the sounds of Bersih were still taking up space in my head: loud bangs, shouting, and a generalised crowd roar. I watched a lot of footage from it and read a lot of accounts. There were multiple possible readings of every aspect of the day. But as Kaz said, it didn’t matter what happened at Bersih: it was going to be written off by politicians and media regardless. Even if some blame lies with a minority of protesters, the thousands who showed up that day saw unjustified force and violence, followed by media coverage that was out of touch with reality. Perhaps as a result Bersih 4.0 will be even bigger.