This is my own account of the Bersih 3.0 rally on April 28, 2012. Full disclosure: I went as part of the Malaysiakini team that day (I’m working as an intern with them). I don’t represent their views, however. These are my own objective thoughts and observations, but if you think I’m fudging anything that’s up to you.
I parked around Lake Gardens, which was far from the rally but also far from tear gas canisters and other car-breaking stuff. Still, the long walk would come back to bite me later.
Along the way I passed by Bukit Aman police HQ. Lots of cops on bikes.
By about 8.30am or so I reached Jalan Sultan. Already there were a few hundred people crowding all the stalls and shops for food. And the sit-in was supposed to start at 2pm.
As I saw on Twitter later: “You know shit got serious when Malaysians show up early for something”.
I just stood around taking pics, trying to figure out this new-fangled DSLR thingy. I eventually settled on using ‘P’ mode and just shooting it like a machine gun, and bother with sorting out pics later. Seemed to work fine. It was like some carnival, seriously – people selling yellow Angry Birds balloons (ah, the Malaysian entrepreneurship), cold drinks, playing instruments, or whatever.
All the stores were doing serious business. KK Mart, 7-eleven were all cashing in on hungry, thirsty people. I tried charging my phone for some extra battery life at KK Mart. Someone, I think the manager, told me ‘Cannot sir, sorry’. What? I give you business, and you won’t let me charge for 5 minutes ah?
Eventually I settled at KFC, leaching off a power point there. Half the people weren’t even eating, just changing in the bathroom or washing up.
People were seriously cheering at everything on the street. Alam Flora truck passes by, then – ‘Bersih! Bersih!’. Way to go, Captain Obvious.
There was one guy wearing a Transformers’ Bumblebee mask (‘cause it’s yellow, geddit?), sitting down and not moving. I heard a sound coming from him and it was pretty weird – was he singing? But it was some sort of strap-on speaker he had on his forearm. Playing that ‘We Are The World’-like DAP election campaign song. He just sat there motionless and people took turns posing with him for pictures. Okay. Have fun, dude.
Yet another crowd was drawn to some guy with a kid on his shoulders. The kid was shouting things like ‘Bersih, Bersih! Hidup Bersih!’. People were pretty amused, but I thought it was pretty stupid to bring kids along – water cannon then how? Tear gas then how?
So the march starts
Fast-forward to about 12pm. I was walking around trying to locate a friend. No such luck, but I did see Auntie Bersih, who was saluting people. At Jalan Petaling, the police had formed human barricades along several roads. Err, okay, didn’t see the point of that. But they were perfectly peaceful.
The crowd shouted ‘Buka, buka!’ whenever a car or something came by and they cheered like mad when the police parted to let it through. Err, what? It’s like cheering when a traffic light turns green. Still, it was non-aggressive and everyone was upbeat at the time.
Anyway, soon enough some red-shirted people, presumably the DAP guys, showed up to lead the crowd. The mass of people began moving, but so… slowly…
Here I basically just took detours and tried to get out of the sardine can. Let’s fast-forward a bit.
Taking a couple of turns, stopping some more here and there, the crowd eventually reached Jalan Tun Perak. Huge crowd in front of Maybank Tower and beyond. There was some guy in a (yellow, of course) Power Rangers costume. He probably died of heat stroke, but hey, no problems with tear gas right?
Food shops doing killer business from the look of things.
I eventually ended up at the north side of Dataran Merdeka, somewhere around Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. I was nowhere near the barrier, the crowd was too packed to really move forward.
I know you all just skipped forward to this part, where stuff happens
Now not being able to see the barricade, I couldn’t see what was going on. I couldn’t even hear Ambiga, who was supposedly telling the crowd to disperse at some point. I did however see Anwar on a truck at a distance, but I dunno anything about the signalling nonsense people are talking about.
We were seriously packed in. I tried going out of the crowd and coming back in at different points – no luck. Could barely take out my camera. It didn’t occur to me how a stampede could break out if people starting running and panicking.
Suddenly, I saw some water go whoooosh way in front of me and I thought ‘Oh yeah’ and took out my camera, lifted it above my head and just let the shots reel off.
Then the smoke broke out from the LRT tracks above. This was probably the first canister fired that people were referring to, and it must have gotten caught on the tracks or something.
At this point the crowd went nuts. They started pushing and moving backwards quickly, and me and a couple of other guys were shouting ‘Jangan tolak!’ to the people, who obviously didn’t listen.
Luckily, it stopped short of being a stampede. No Mufasa-dies-in-a-wildebeest-stampede episode here. This was along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman I think. Then I looked to my left and saw smoke coming out nearby. Like an idiot I just walked along and thought ‘So it begins’ in a very Lord of the Rings, Battle-of-Helm’s-Deep sort of way (see pic above).
I was just about to call out ‘For
Rohan Malaysia!’ when the gas hit me.
Because it just disperses fast, you might not see it when it hits. You can smell it though, and it smells pedih, like chilli in the air, with a slightly weird twist to the smell.
Anyway, it was agony. Eyes burning, skin burning, made the mistake of breathing and then nose also burning. Eventually I gasped for air and then mouth also burning. Ouch.
It suffocates. Around me people stumbled on the ground, and they were crying out, and gasping. I soon followed.
You literally cry out when the gas hits your throat and airways, because it suffocates. It’s excruciating, and I couldn’t breathe. For maybe ten seconds it feels like you could die, and I’m not being dramatic here.
You instinctively shut your eyes, because they’ll sting more if you open them. Blind and on the ground, I fumbled around my bag for the stuff I prepared for the tear gas – I didn’t really think I’d use them, but Scouts mah – be prepared.
Took water and splashed it all over my face, gave some to some other poor guy beside me. Was just getting my salt water-soaked rag and inhaler out when I saw people on the road running again.
Shit. More gas? I smelled it coming again so before I could use my stuff I just picked up and went. People pushed really badly, and I almost fell down and got stepped on. Luckily, we were pretty spread out by then and it wasn’t a sardine can anymore, so not so dangerous.
Finally, I got to a safe distance and could walk. Took out my salt, ate it, wiped my face with the rag (worked wonders) and took a puff on the inhaler just in case. Shared stuff with people around as well.
I suddenly felt like vomiting, though.
Then I found out my father, who was also there with some friends, had left before the gas struck. Aiya! What if I got arrested and needed to be bailed out?
People were very kind at this stage. They were giving out free salt and water and a vendor was giving out drinks. Soon enough another gas canister came and even he had to pack up and run off, I think…
People were cursing the police very badly now. You can imagine how badly.
Soon we were pushed back as far as Sogo. This is where I started seeing some crowd aggression. At Sogo they had made a makeshift barricade out of what looked like big wooden platforms or tables, and were trying to push the police back. Lots of insults thrown.
People would jeer at the police, and then they would charge all at once. The police ran back, and it looked hilarious. Soon they regrouped and charged at the protesters instead, and it was very Tom and Jerry.
But after this point most of the excitement ended for me. It wasn’t till later that I found out about the car crash, the seven-against-one police brutality, the protestors hurling gas canisters back at FRU trucks or the journalists being harassed and arrested.
What I saw was a lot of tensions running high, but no overt violence (there’s enough evidence of that, though). I was near the car crash at Pertama Complex but I didn’t see nor hear anything, I wasn’t quite there.
Then I decided to make my way back to the car, and just see what I’d come across along the way. Saw a guy whose car’s back windscreen was broken by a tear gas canister, poor guy. The back seat was burnt black where the canister hit. And apparently his girlfriend was in the car at the time too.
Wound up at Masjid Jamek, trying to get into the LRT station. Just as I got close, I smelt tear gas coming again. *Sigh*
So everyone there retreated again. I was pretty pissed. Why shoot tear gas near the LRT station? How is that helping the crowd disperse?
When it cleared up, I managed to get to the station at last – only to find it locked down and closed. Aiyo. Outside Masjid Jamek itself there was a troop of FRU personnel, decked in full gear looking like they were going to lay siege to Masjid Jamek, where people were obviously taking refuge. Some guys posed beside them to take pictures.
Then I just walked off to god-knows-where in KL, my phone battery dead (tear gas must have messed me up). Soon I was across the road from Tung Shin Hospital. What? Totally devoid of police or protesters though, there were only buses around.
Still, it was just KL, wasn’t hard – made it back to Jalan Sultan and managed to cut back to Lake Gardens through Pos Malaysia, the same way I had come earlier.
Huge group of policemen sitting at the side of the road, presumably enjoying some drinks after a long day. Would have been more afraid, walking right past them alone (with a guy in yellow near me to boot) but like I said – hadn’t heard of the police brutality yet. Walked right by them (and Bukit Aman police HQ again) without incident.
All the detours I had taken had really worn down my feet, and walking through Lake Gardens was the last painful stretch. Still, I managed somehow. Wished I’d parked closer but then I remembered the guy with the broken screen in his car.
So that was it for me. Relatively tame time at my first street rally in Malaysia, but honestly the tear gas was enough.
Observations and opinions
1. The police were peaceful right up till the breaching of the barricades. I initially thought this rally actually might go down peacefully this time. Oops. But credit to the Sabah police for their examplary conduct.
2. The police overstepped their response to the Dataran breach. I can understand enforcing the court order. I can even understand using tear gas and water cannons around Dataran. But I see no justification for pushing crowds as far back as Sogo or Masjid Jamek, and blocking passage into LRT stations. They were supposed to facilitate dispersal. They didn’t.
3. PAS’ Unit Amal did a good job. Talking to some people and reading reports, I have to hand it to PAS’ volunteer group for keeping the more enthusiastic protesters away from the Dataran cordon. I don’t know if one or two of them had a hand in the breach as well, but overall they did good.
4. Protesters were pretty aggressive too. Some of them charged at the police, some threw back tear gas canisters (pretty stupid in my opinion, because you’ll just burn your hand) and some just heckled the police. But let it also be said that the majority, once again, were peaceful.
5. There definitely were instigators there. Obviously I can’t say whether they were planted, but there were definitely people there who were just in it to egg people on. These were the people shouting obscenities at the government, or pushing to break the Dataran barricades.
6. People still get fooled, even online. You’d think after being exposed to online alternatives that people would take the time to look up a few things before jumping to conclusions. I saw a lot of reactions on Facebook condemning the protesters for their horrible behaviour. When I checked, it turns out almost all of them had simply seen the news on the TV – meaning they either saw government-sanctioned good-ol’ TV3 news, or the Astro-censored BBC/Al Jazeera reports. *Facepalm*
7. Turnout was huge. I can’t vouch for any estimates (Malaysiakini’s is 100,000), not being able to do a scientific estimate, but when you take the upper limit – Bersih’s 250,000 – and the mainstream media’s lower limit of about 22,000 according to Bernama, you still get figures significantly higher than last year’s rally (mainstream media estimate – 6,000 I think).
8. But the impact may not have been as strong as last year. Allegations of protester violence meant that not all the criticism went to Najib this time. The Economist ran a piece a couple of days after the rally saying as much: Bersih 3.0 has not hurt Najib nearly as much as Bersih 2.0, and the movement now risks being seen as too pro-opposition. Whether the judgement was premature or not, that’s that – heck, Najib may even call for elections soon regardless.
9. People did great business. Both before and after the gas hit, many enterprising people were making a killing selling expensive cold drinks, food and T-shirts among other things. Many people complain of losses because of the rally – I remain skeptical. Some people definitely suffered losses (taxi drivers) but the claims seem a little exaggerated (RM2,000 a day for burgers?) Heck, I would have paid RM5 for a simple burger after running away from tear gas, but no one was there to sell me food.
10. The crowd was very rojak. Not just in terms of race, but in terms of intentions. You had the anti-Lynas people piggybacking the rally. You had some other random groups (anti-tin mining?) and you had the usual anti-government guys. Some were pretty partisan, despite Bersih advocating a neutral political stance. And then of course you had the actual pro-electoral reform people. I’d say all the extra groups boosted turnout a bit, but also took away from the key message a little.
Photos are mine, except for the Lord of the Rings one, which belongs to Peter Jackson. (LOTR: The Two Towers)
Nicholas is expecting a general election really soon.