Bersih: The perfect assembly, Almost
Writer: Marcus van Geyzel
Published: Fri, 04 May 2012
There are so many stories and perspectives from Bersih 3.0. I was there, and very much at the heart of “that barrier breach”. There is minimal analysis here, and no “spin” – everything that is written I witnessed and felt personally.
I clearly point out instances where what I’ve written is based on what I was told by others; I have kept these to a minimum.
Two LoyarBurokkers, rempit style
We planned our transportation a couple of days before. Me and fellow LoyarBurokker Fahri Azzat decided the best way to get into KL without having the hassle of potential roadblocks and traffic jams would be to ride in on his kapchai. Fahri picked me up from the TTDI mosque at around 10.45am. We decided to try to get to Central Market.
Along the way, there were random groups of twos or threes walking along – some in yellow T-shirts, some not. As we approached Masjid Negara, there were several police trucks and many police officers. We parked the bike on the pavement.
Masjid Negara – breaking into our own city
There was already a big crowd at Masjid Negara. This was one of the pre-designated gathering points. We kept to our earlier decision to make our way to Central Market, and walked.
As we made our way up Jalan Kinabalu and approached the turn-off, we noticed it was barricaded with plastic red-and-white barriers, and barbed wire.
I really despised the sight of barbed wire, having seen photos the night before of them being used to barricade Dataran Merdeka.
Why are we being kept out of our own city? And didn’t the authorities say that only Dataran would be sealed off?
What’s with the roadblocks all over the place? This was obviously contradictory to the “order” obtained, as well as the earlier statements.
We crossed Jalan Kinabalu and walked towards Dayabumi. Jalan Sultan Hishammuddin was also sealed off – more barricades and barbed wire.
We made our way down Jalan Tugu, hoping to find another way, and hoping that we wouldn’t have to go all the way to the Kinabalu roundabout and back. We met several other groups and individuals along the way, all trying to find a way in. We exchanged information about which roads were blocked off. We reflected on how ridiculous it was, all of us on foot, having to “break in” to our own city, denied by barbed wire.
I would have felt deeply saddened, if I wasn’t feeling knackered from walking aimlessly in the heat.
We met a 40-something year old Chinese man also trying to find a way in. We told him that Dayabumi was sealed off, for which he thanked us for saving him the walk into a dead-end.
“I’m here not because of politics you know. I’m here for the next generation. No choice lah. Elections must be fair.
Cannot keep on like this, no change. I don’t have any children, but am doing this for my nephews and nieces. I told them, you know, I’m going to walk for you. I don’t want them to have to suffer the same thing. Very unfair. No choice lah, for next generation. But it’s okay lah, I don’t mind. People organise something like this, we must support.”
Suddenly, I noticed that there was a massive pedestrian bridge above us.
We accessed it through a multi-storey carpark, climbing up about two floors. “JyeaH!” But wait, the bloody grill was closed and locked. So close, yet so far. We could see people walking around further into, via the train station and down the other side. Frustrating!
We decided to channel Lord Bobo’s monkey powers and climb around the side of the grill – sharp metal rods and plastic barbed wire notwithstanding. Momentarily hanging two floors above the road, we made it across, and exited onto Jalan Tun Sambanthan.
Hive of activity
There were already many people gathered around Central Market. It was obvious that the turnout was going to be impressive. There were also many stalls selling food and drink. I saw some yellow balloons floating around above the crowd; the atmosphere was fun and festive.
On the way leading up to Petaling Street the areas were bustling with activity. All along the way, stalls and coffeeshops were fully operational, and packed.
The crowd was really big in this area, and went on for as long as I could see. A man with a loudhailer was leading a chant of “Bersih! Bersih!”. I spotted a 70-something year old woman in what looked like yellow pyjamas, with her hands in the air joining in the shouts of “Bersih! Bersih!”.
One guy tried to start up a chant of “Re-for-ma-si!” but it was not taken up by the crowd. He looked around sheepishly and pretended to take a call on his mobile phone.
I bought a 100 Plus from a roadside stall, nice and ice-cold. Next to me was an elderly Malay man struggling to find change in his pockets for a drink; I told him “Takpe pakcik, saya belanja,” (It’s alright uncle, my treat) to which he grinned and said “Hidup Rakyat!” (Long Live the People!).
I cheekily asked the young man selling the drinks whether his business was badly affected by Bersih, as ignorantly claimed by many critics. He looked at me in mock shock, and smilingly said: “Bang, saya rasa kalau satu bulan biasa jual pun tak boleh jual macam ni lah. Dah nak habis dah! Aku mintak member aku pi bawak stock lagi,” (Bro, I think I wouldn’t be able to sell this much even in a whole month in normal circumstances. I’m running out! I’ve already asked my friend to go and get some more stock) and right on cue another fella with a trolley-full of canned drinks packed into a styrofoam box arrived, breathing heavily but smiling.
Having a good time
After the break, we headed back to Central Market where the crowd had swelled even more in our absence.
Fahri: “It’s like friggin Malaysia Day Carnival or something out here man!”
I agreed, it was beautiful. Despite the heat from the mid-day sun, everyone was having a genuinely good day out.
Me: “Ya man, most of these fellas would probably not set foot in this part of town again for the rest of the year – if only our actual Merdeka Day celebrations were like this.”
We continued our makan-minum (eat-drink) tour of KL with a couple of drinks from a stall run by a rather cute-looking young Malay girl; I got an orange juice. As we were paying, a man walked by and teasingly said to her:
“Mana ada bisnes rugi sebab Bersih. Tak henti-henti orang beli minum kan?” (Loss of business due to Bersih? People are buying your drinks non-stop, right?!) to which we all laughed.
We walked through the covered pedestrian walkway to the Bar Council, where there was another big crowd gathered. The police had blocked off the road just before the bridge across to Dataran.
Many people were taking photos of themselves and the crowds. Fahri observed that the “Malaysian rally tourist pose” was one where you stood with your hands slightly raised, holding a smartphone or a camera. Everyone was having a good time.
Speaking of atmosphere, the crowd at Masjid Jamek was definitely the most impressive we had come across so far.
If not the biggest, it was definitely the noisiest. The cheers of “Bersih! Bersih!” and “Hidup Rakyat!” echoed through Jalan Tun Perak.
Balloons and banners were everywhere. Some people were already sitting down on Jalan Tun Perak under the LRT tracks – the crowd was thick, as far as the eye could see towards Dataran Maybank, and all the way up to Jalan Parlimen, as we would later find out
First look at Dataran
We slowly made our way through the thick crowd of people – really slowly – towards Dataran Merdeka. As we reached the Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman junction we saw heavy police presence, FRU in a distance, and barbed wire. The crowd here was calmer than at Masjid Jamek, and extended far back into Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman.
There really were people from all walks of life here. A truly Malaysian crowd with all the stereotypes one could imagine (in a good way lah). There were Melayu mat-rempit looking fellas, Indian machas, bespectacled clean-cut Chinese guys, good looking girls, women in tudung, old young and everything in-between. The perfect assembly.
The barricades were metal barriers, then those plastic barriers you see on highways, and barbed wire. There was a double-file of police officers standing on the other side. (These police officers and the wire would later be strangely missing in the pictures and videos of the events at this exact location closer to 3pm.)
As I was standing around, there were suddenly shouts of “bagi laluan!” (make way!) and police officers started filing in through the crowd towards Dataran. The stream of police officers (mostly single-file) went on for at least 10-15 minutes. There must have been 100-200 of them. As they walked by, the mood in the crowd was jovial – many shook hands with them, and so did I.
The police officers were a mix of grizzled-looking veterans to obviously rookie cops. I made a point of saying thank you by name (their name-badges were stitched onto their uniforms) to a number of them. I like to think that this would make a difference somehow, and later perhaps they’d be more inclined to show kindness.
We moved on in the direction of Jalan Parlimen. The crowd extended all the way to the roundabout-junction, where several police trucks were parked.
It was amazing just standing there, looking at the huge crowd of Malaysians that had turned up. And under the blazing hot sun too! And they turned up early! Words don’t suffice.
Masjid India – almost time to walk in
We headed back towards Masjid Jamek, stopping for a while at the grilled corridors of the Panggung Bandaraya to enjoy the cooling breeze, and walked across Jalan Tun Perak, up Jalan Melaka and over the river to Masjid India, where there was another big crowd.
The crowd was multi-racial, despite it being a mosque – everyone was just a “Malaysian”. As we looked up at the low-cost accommodation, there were many foreign workers crowded around the windows, looking down at the crowd below.
Fahri: “These fellas are probably wondering what the hell these Malaysians are complaining about man, they have it good here!”
That’s probably true, but we always have to strive for better, and for all we know, they could be thinking: “Man, I wish we could rally for free and fair elections, or justice, or democracy in our country – I respect what these guys are doing, despite their relative affluence.”
After a short speech, it was announced that we would walk to Dataran. The speaker reminded everyone to stay calm and to walk slowly and in an orderly manner. He also urged everyone not to react to any provocation, and to remember that we were there to fight for free and fair elections.
When we arrived at the junction of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and Jalan Melayu, the crowd couldn’t move further forward. The main road was already packed with seated people.
We inched and inched – there were two tidal flows, some moving in, some moving out – until we got to Dataran.
Dataran – Anwar arrives, and we are brutally gassed by the police
We settled on a spot just under the LRT tracks, so we were about 20-30 metres I guess from the barricades? (a two-lane road and some pavement). Again, we took in the atmosphere. We spoke a bit to people on either side of us. It looked like we had done it – that we had all successfully pulled off a peaceful, beautiful rally, and that the police had allowed us to.
While it’s obviously difficult for us to give an accurate estimate, we were sure that the crowd was massive – at least 70,000 surely. There were big crowds wherever we went, and there were also many people walking around in big groups. We didn’t even make it to Dataran Maybank, where there was apparently one of the bigger crowds.
I also know of many who came in the morning and left around 2.30pm after they had “made their point”. Most who attended didn’t give a damn about the politics and noise generated online and offline – they simply came to show that they wanted free and fair elections.
Big balloons were passed above the crowd, and people were sitting and standing and just drinking in the atmosphere.
After some time, we noticed that there was a huge flag arriving from an elevated position.
We then realised that it was some sort of truck or lorry that was bringing in the flag-bearer, and that there were a number of people seated in the back of it.
As it came to a stop at the barricades, just in front of us, we spotted the individuals – Nurul Izzah Anwar, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah Wan Ismail and Dr Xavier Jeyakumar.
And then Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang stood up and walked to the front of the lorry. The crowd cheered loudly – in fact, they roared. Anwar took the megaphone and led chants of “Bersih! Bersih!” and “Hidup Rakyat!”. The crowd was really jostling around at this point, and we were focusing on keeping our footing. Some people in front of me ended up behind me, as I seemed to have been jostled further forward.
Me: “Where the hell is Ambi man?”
Fahri: “Yeah, I can’t believe she didn’t show up. She’s supposed to be running this. I’m here for her, not for bloody Anwar.”
(We later found out, when zooming in on some photos taken there, that Ambiga actually was on the truck. She was seated, on the Dataran side, away from the crowd. She did not stand up. She did not speak. I read reports about her speaking and asking the crowd to disperse, but I can clearly state that this did not happen at Dataran. As I said, we did not even know she was there. I am still disappointed that she did not even bother standing up. Many of us turned up because of her invitation, and she should have at least acknowledged the crowd and said something.)
I had a very clear view of Anwar from where I was standing, and this is what I saw. Note that these are how I interpreted events at the time – I know there’s been a lot of subsequent discussion about what happened.
Anwar repeatedly gestured for the crowd to move back, away from the barricade. Every time he did this, there was a noticeable push back, and I had to try hard to maintain my footing.
I would say there were at least three instances of Anwar gesturing to “move back” and the crowd obeying and pushing back.
Anwar also made a gesture towards the barricades – I assumed at the time that he was making this gesture to the police officers there. He would do a hands-together “praying” gesture, and a “open” gesture, as if asking the police whether they would consider letting us in. After doing this twice, he turned to us, and shrugged, with palms turned upward, as if to say “oh well, I tried”.
The crowd chanted “Buka! Buka!” (Open! Open!) Anwar at this point again gestured for the crowd to “move back”, and made a gesture telling people at the front to “calm down” repeatedly.
His “move back” gestures were very clear.
After that, Anwar seemed to have given up, and sat crouching with his hand over the shoulder of another individual on the truck. This individual, together with another individual, were observed repeatedly asking the crowd to “move back” as well as at one point making clear “no” gestures to someone, or a group of someones, at the front of the crowd.
Suddenly, we heard a loud cheer from the front of the crowd.
Fahri: “Eh, they’re letting us in!”
Me: “No, wait. Don’t move first. Wait and see. It might be a trap.”
I looked at Anwar and he seemed surprised at whatever was happening at the front, and was waving his hand in what I interpreted as a disapproving gesture to say “no, no”.
As much as we heard cheering and noticed some people at the front moving forward, and noticing that there were some people running around past the barricades, the crowd around us did not move forward. We all stood still, making no attempt to move forward.
Within seconds, we saw plumes of smoke up ahead, and water cannons being deployed.
Fahri: “They lured them in and whacked them.”
Me: “Good thing we didn’t move forward right? The order was you cannot go into Dataran, so those fellas went in and kena lah.” I thought we would be safe since we were just standing outside, and the crowd was not surging in.
How naive of me! I was quickly proven wrong.
Fahri: “Eh, the trucks are moving forward!”
Suddenly I heard the “poom poom poom poom poom” which I recognised as tear gas canisters being fired. I noticed a canister flying high and seemingly on a trajectory to land right on our heads. It thankfully hit the LRT tracks and got stuck on top. We turned and ran.
Here’s the surprising part – although we had not seen any tear gas canisters going past us, when we turned, it was already a wall of smoke in front of us. (I was later informed that there were several individuals in the crowd who rolled tear gas canisters into the crowd from behind – several people told me this, and some also said that the individuals rolling the tear gas canisters were wearing yellow T-shirts).
I had no choice, I had to run into the gas.
It was thick gas, and it was my first time experiencing tear gas. I don’t see why they call it “tear” gas – my eyes didn’t really tear up as much as it felt like my skin was melting. I shouted to Fahri: “Bro, spit it out, whatever you do, don’t swallow it in!” and that was the last I saw of him for some time.
As I was running, the first sensation was of my face burning, then the back of my neck, then my arms and legs.
Then I could hardly breathe. I was gagging and vomited mucus. Around me, I could hear people screaming and vomiting.
I heard more “poom poom poom poom” (how many were they firing at us?!) and thought I saw a canister fly by towards my left and hit a building.
Then my vision went, and my eyes burnt. My nose was like a faucet. I kept spitting and spitting as I went along.
The air was thick with gas for what seemed like an eternity. I remember thinking that surely I would pass out – I had to breathe, but every breath brought sharp pain. It either felt like I was on fire, or that someone was rubbing cili padi all over me (including in my eyes).
I was trying to figure out how to fall down and pass out without being trampled on. Then a lady beside me tripped; I grabbed her arm and jogged along with her until she regained her balance and could run again. That effort of having to catch her seemed to distract me from my own pain, and it suddenly became bearable.
The air thinned out and seemed to clear of gas. I took my squirt water bottle from my pouch and squirted my eyes and face and mouth. I passed it to a young Malay boy on my left, and he took it and sprayed water over his face as well. An older Indian man on my right also asked for it.
Why did they gas us?
I looked around for the first time, and realised that I was at Kamdar. That was quite a distance to run. And it made me realise the extent to which the gas was rolled in behind us.
“Why did they gas us! We were standing around doing nothing!” I said out loud. People around me were also cursing as they regained calm “Babi punya polis!” (Police pigs!) “Polis serang rakyat!” (Police attacking the people!) “What is wrong with the police?!” I pulled over at Kamdar, and washed my face and arms again. A Chinese guy came over to offer me some salt. It helped a lot, and my head seemed to clear up.
A few of us – young student-looking Malay guys, a young Chinese couple, an elderly Chinese couple, an old Indian man, and a few others – were standing around Kamdar for a couple of minutes ranting and raving about why the police decided to open fire.
This is when I was told by some of them that they saw individuals rolling tear gas canisters into the crowd, quite a distance back from Dataran Merdeka. They had no idea what was going on in front – in fact many of them did not even know that Anwar and the truck of other people had arrived. Many of them were still sitting on the road when tear gas started to fill the air, and they had to quickly stand up to avoid being trampled on.
I really could not understand why the police would try to box us in. This was no dispersal.
The police were cruel. They endangered our lives, and obviously had the intention of inflicting pain and suffering.
There was no warning bell.
And there was a hell of a lot of tear gas fired; a ridiculous amount. Even after we turned and saw a wall of gas, I kept hearing the “poom poom poom poom”.
This is our police force, which is supposed to serve and protect us. Instead they ended up inflicting unnecessary pain on us and protecting a field.
After the chaos
After a couple of minutes, I heard the “poom poom poom poom” again, so everyone started running up the road again.
Along the way, there were several groups of policemen standing at the side of the road. Some of them were goading the crowd aggressively. “Padan muka!” (Serves you right!) “Kenapa lari? Balik ke Dataran lah. Padan muka!” (Why are you running away? Go back to Dataran lah. Serves you right!) “Sakit ke? Memang patut!” (Does it hurt? It should!) Thankfully nobody seemed to react to them.
I got to Sogo, and decided to stop again as things seemed to have calmed down.
It was here that I bumped into Rahul and Cristabel. Cristabel had been split up from her group of friends, and I lent her my phone to SMS them. Rahul had salt all over his face, and had got tear-gassed quite badly too.
We saw crowds running up the road again and I saw smoke in a distance. Me, Rahul, and Cristabel started jogging forward.
As we got to Pertama Complex, Cristabel said: “There’s traffic here. I think we’re okay now. They wouldn’t fire tear gas when there’s traffic right.” I wasn’t so sure. “You never know with these fellas.”
We noticed a crowd of police officers suddenly making their way into the area, and I said: “OK, time to make a move again, we don’t want to be hanging around here.”
We arrived at Maju Junction and sat down again. Cristabel managed to get hold of June and they made plans to meet up at Tune Hotel across the road. The police suddenly closed Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman to traffic, pulling barricades across the junction from Jalan Sultan Ismail. “I think we’d better cross the road. No traffic means bad news,” I said. There we met other friends. I was again told about people rolling in tear gas into the middle of crowds to box them in.
We decided to get the monorail to KL Sentral, so we walked up Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. I could tell that the mood had changed – many people I walked past looked tired, probably from having been tear-gassed.
I looked at some of the more elderly and frail people and wondered how bad it must have been for them.
As I walked past a bus-stop with a massive plastic advertisement with Najib’s face on it, next to the words “Rakyat Didahulukan.” (People First), a woman in a tudung walking past punched his face, swearing, followed by a man who spat on his face, and another man who also spat at him.
Much to think about
At that point, I was more sad than angry really. I was sad that what for the most part was an absolutely beautiful, peaceful gathering ended up on a sour note.
The police reaction was extremely excessive. As we went by on the monorail, we noticed that the FRU trucks had pushed all the way up to Jalan Sultan Ismail, parked right in front of Maju Junction.
As I rode back on the monorail, I chose to remember the beautiful part of the day.
The people, the smiles, the festive atmosphere, the balloons, the cheers and songs, the food and drink.
The purpose. The peace.
And yes — it even drizzled a bit at the end. The perfect assembly, almost.