A Bersih Experience

Emmanuel Joseph
12th July 2011

I woke up like many Malaysians on Saturday morning, resolute to attend the rally in Kuala Lumpur, but, also like many Malaysians, worried. Worried I could not make it into the city, worried that I would be detained, worried about the new depths which the police were willing to take this time around. After all, the pre-emptive measures taken to prevent this rally from happening up to that point has been without precedence. I would not have been surprised if the stringent roadblocks exposed Osama Bin Laden, had he not already been killed by the US.

I decided I could not forgive myself if I did not go, so I took a Komuter to KL. The station I boarded (a minor train stop, really) had three police officers manning a guard post and another walking around the station. It looked a bit like a scene from a WW2 movie, but I hadn’t carried any bags with me so as not to arouse suspicion. I carried all I was advised to carry in a 6 pocket baggy quarterpants.I even had a dental appointment card as an ‘alibi’. As much as I wanted to wear yellow and don a Bersih headband, I needed to get in the city to make it count. So instead, I wore a T shirt saying ‘Stop Following Me’, and hoped the police would do as the T shirt said. But as expected, it didn’t really help.

In the train, there were another three cops seated in the same carriage as me. It was quite early in the morning. Another cop walked up and down the coaches, looking at the passengers’ faces. I wasn’t sure what facial expression to wear to not arouse suspicion, so I just pretended to be asleep with my best ‘muka duh’. Luckily for me, at the next station, some familiar faces boarded. They were NGO and PAS activists. One sat opposite me. I ‘woke up’ and greeted the guy “Pagi, bang” “Selamat pagi dik.” . Almost knowingly he asked me “KL ke Sentral?” .I replied, “KL” With a smile, I asked “Jalan?”, and his answer came quickly “Mestilah..” A few seconds later, perhaps as an afterthought seeing the cops nearby “Cuaca baik,best bersiar-siar kat KL”.

Another group boarded the train and it was apparent that they all knew each other. The policemen, either worried of the coach being entirely made up of would-be protestors ,were sympathizers, or were just generally upset over the fact that we would get a buffet if we were arrested as opposed to their crappy ‘nasi bungkus rations’. One by one, the cops exited the train.As the crowd in the train swelled with would-be-protestors, the chatter got louder and louder and inevitably turned towards criticizing the government. By this time, all cops have alighted.We passed by security blockades on the road that were probably tighter than the Israeli blockade in Gaza. The guys on the train were very well coordinated (they had even sent out ‘scouts’ in the morning to see the extent of the roadblocks) and generally awesome, fun people.

I arrived at about 10.15am at the main KL KTMB station. After talking to a few people, mainly PAS supporters in the station, realized we have already been barricaded in. Met my old friend, the PAS Klang secretary who had just given AFP an interview (in which he called Malaysia a future police state to be governed by a PM/IGP) .I found out from him that they had earlier performed the morning prayers at the mosque where their numbers had been thinned by a few rounds of police and thieves,or in this case ‘police and protestors’ with the cops. Hardly a few moments after I walked away from my friend, the police moved in and started rounding up the crowd, herding us onto the platform area, clearing out the lobby.

I then updated my Facebook status to ‘Locked in at KL station’. This got some friends panicky as they thought I had been arrested, which led to a panicked friend of mine from Singapore furiously SMSing an extremely confused me “Do you need me to call a lawyer? Which station? Did they arrest you or detain you? Are you in van or in balai?” After explaining it to her (and rewording my status update) she calms down.

Soon after, a young serban-ed Muslim gentleman, who was sleeping on the tarmac floor with his bag as a pillow was asked to remove his bag and upon checking, the policemen found a yellow T shirt in it, and he was dragged through the crowd. This agitated the people in the station and I found myself in the middle of shouts of ‘Takbir’ and ‘Allahuakbar’. This made the policemen move onto the platform and to prevent any injury, we all sat on the platform. Unaccustomed to PAS demonstrator norms, I clumsily sat cross-leggedly and soon realized everyone else assumed the kneeling position common in Muslim prayers.The guy next to me smiled and asked “Ana bukan orang PAS kan?”. I took one good look at myself, black T shirt,utility quarterpants and sneakers with no socks, and confirmed to myself that I could never pass for a PAS member, ever, despite having a brown face.I nodded sheepsihly at him and he smiled back. “Takpa duduk sini, kalau keluar bahaya”

Before I had any time to ‘correct my posture’, the cops moved in again, this time chasing us away from the platform. Apparently, they don’t really like seeing protestors resting. So we were, this time, chased out of the station. There our cat and mouse game with the cops began. Two attempts to march to the National Mosque were met with about ten percent of the crowd being shaved off by men-grabbing FRU trucks. Now knowing how dogs must feel like when the municipal trucks come for them, I made a silent promise to myself to be nice to my neighbourhood strays. The third time around, an officer grabbed my arm when a group of PAS folk came from the back and more or less rescued me from the clutches of doom.Now sort of safely back at the station entrance, I was told the PAS group plans to wait and march off to the National Mosque at 1.15pm for the Zohor prayers.

Having earlier realized my non-PASness, this was pretty much terrifying news for me.You see, I could not see any other non-Malay in the station at that time, other than a few news reporters. I was already imagining prison food, as per YB Teresa Kok’s experience, I would be given spoilt curry and a half boiled egg (at this point, information that I would be treated to a ‘RM 25 briyani buffet’ in PULAPOL if I were was not yet available), as I would be a fat sitting duck when the cops saw me lingering like a hobo outside the National Mosque. Suddenly, two people caught my eye, a Chinese lady and the guy next to her, who looked kind of Malay, like me.Something made me quite certain he wasn’t Muslim (men don’t wear gold chains, thanks Ustaz Nazri Nayan from PAS Youth for that lesson!) and I quickly made friends with this doctor from Ipoh (whose clinic is apparently visible from the highway).and his friend. As if on cue, a travelling group of Chinese ladies, a family and two young gentlemen whom I later would come to know as Eugene and Brian, from Penang and PJ, and I quickly joined this crowd before I was left as an easy target for harassment, we had to keep moving.

A few moments later, DAP lawyer and friend,Way Kheng, calls me to find out if I am OK as she just read that many people were detained in the train station and had read my status updates.Over 100 apparently. All I could think of was I hope the guys who just helped me were OK.I then got a call from Klang DAP chief, Ivan Ho who told me many DAP members were stuck in HQ. This made me worried and determined at the same time.Worried because these were my friends. Determined because I felt now, more than ever, I had to make it there.

I called my best friend to find out where he was and to my initial relief and later annoyance, he has been wolfing down burgers and sipping coffee while checking out chicks all morning at McDonald’s while I was getting a three forced morning jog rounds around the train station. We agree to meet at Petaling Street, as he and the friends with him tried to pass the police checkpoints from there. In Petaling Street I met up with the journalist/thespian/writer I respect most, Kee Thuan Chye. We spend a few moments talking and posing for photos as my friend tried to make his way from Kota Raya, trying to avoid the FRU mounted blocks.. There were many NGO representatives whom I have previously met and we used the few minutes we had before the police marched in to catch up and drink some soya bean milk.Apparently tourists in Petaling Street either did not know or did not care about the rally as we saw many walking around. Perhaps they are not aware of the existence of tear gas and water cannons in rallies, or probably thought those giant trucks were meant for food and water distribution for hungry demonstrators later.

The group from Pasar Seni and Medan Rakyat joined us and suddenly the crowd at Petaling Street swelled into the thousands.We saw helicopters by a TV station widely and commonly disliked by Bersih supporters and was repeatedly booed. The FRU moves in at this time we found ourselves walking down Petaling street. And when the FRU blocked the other side, we found ourselves walking up. This continued a few times before a sensible, and I imagine tired protest leader shouts for us to sit down.And we sit down for a while before another protest leader shouts for us to stand up.This happens a few times. It appears the protest leaders are not always agreeable on whether we sit down or stand up. Anyway, the police seemed to have lax their blockade at the entrance of Jalan Pudu so we began marching there.We were joined by two large crowds , one coming from each side of the road, and converging in the middle. Suddenly we are in a sea of people spanning three roads and entire sidewalks.We have arrived at the rally.This was it. This was Bersih.

There were Malaysians of all walks of life, of all races, of all backgrounds. All gathered for the singular goal- to support Bersih and its 8 perfectly legitimate claims for a cleaner, fairer election.All gathered for a better Malaysia. We listen to some people reading poems, a guy takes out a guitar and starts playing. A few protestors started planking for photos. People were breaking into random,moving speeches in all languages. Motorists were high beaming and honking and some wound down their windows and yelled words of encouragement. The mood was energetic but peaceful.To me, this was Malaysia coming together.

That all shattered when all of a sudden, canister after canister of tear gas bombs were fired into the crowd. One canister exploded near me, in front of a group of Muslimat protestors wearing telekungs. Impressively, these brave women ran with their telekungs and face-covers intact. Their faith was not about to be shaken by tear gas canisters. In contrast, for all the bravado and silat-laced threats earlier, another group who threatened to protest, stayed home.The Chinese also apparently did not stock food that day, and came out to join the rally.

The crowd, previously orderly and organized, started running as our eyes started to smart, skin started to itch and breathing became difficult. However, this impressively brutal act brought out an even more impressive side of Malaysians. Malaysians were leading fellow Malaysians out of the chaos. People were not allowed to fall because other people pulled them up and kept them going. Youngsters formed human chains to allow women and senior citizens and a few disabled people who bravely took a stand with us, to get through safely. The police did not save these people that day. Their fellow Malaysians did. The police’s only contribution, was to cause the unnecessary panic in the first place.

While we regrouped,I noticed that many activists from outside KL were here, and saw the legendary Dr Chen Man Hin and managed to greet him and Kak Marina Mahathir, who stood in the crowd.

While people were still reeling from effects tear gas, water trucks moved in spraying high pressured blue chemical water at people. We ran along the road, and miraculously, no one was seriously injured though they were tens of thousands on the road that day. Shuttered shops opened up their doors for us to wash our eyes and faces and get rid of the literally, bad taste in our mouths. People were sharing their water, salt, soap and pain, weaker ones were quickly led away to fresh air, the crowd literally took care of their own. It was beautiful.
As if on cue, it began to rain. The effects of the tear gas and chemical water quickly wore off and people started to regroup again.The crowd bursts into a impromptu rendition of Negaraku. The rain was heavier now and for awhile the police and protestors both stood their ground. When the rain subsided a little more, however, they started firing tear gas canisters again.

This time the police moved in this time, some with trucks, and my friends and I ran into the nearby parking lot. Cops on foot gave chase to protestors and we ran into the backlanes, climbed a few small hills and were separated from the main group. We walked till we reached the KLSE building and rested in the car park underground with protestors who had been gassed near Tung Shin, and a few who escaped Jalan Pudu.

There’s something magical about the bond that tear gas brings. You instantly become friendlier and start talking with everyone. All walls vanish and you’re all friends all of a sudden, driven by a common goal.Yes, ultimately electoral reform, but at that moment- to get away from the tear gas! Come to think of it, perhaps assembling all BN component parties in PWTC and gassing them silly could solve the answer to their internal conflict, but I digress. Anyway,here we met a few activists who came in from Sarawak- Election Watch. We smelt tear gas again and had to get moving. We looked for a way to rejoin the main group, but failed , as all roads were cordoned off by cops and we were basically, alone.

We explored the back alleys and lorongs looking for a way to rejoin the crowd only to have police meet us at every angle. Frustrated, we decided to try and grab a monorail to Maharajalela and walk to the Stadium from there, as ultimately, everybody was trying to get there. As we somehow managed to sneak into Raja Chulan, we rejoined a smallish crowd of people, at least for a few seconds before FRU trucks rolled in and we smelt tear gas again.We were chased like stray dogs again down Raja Chulan,from both directions- one side from Jalan Pudu, the other from God-knows-where.. The crowd that were trying to call out to us to join them seconds ago ran helter-skelter down Chulan, P Ramlee while we ran into the open parking lot bordering the Bukit Nenas Forest reserve.

There an elderly lady came to the gate of her house and asked us to run into the jungle to hide from the helicopters (which if you recall, were TV3 helicopters). I am unsure when the last time this lady has been out of that house, but I put it somewhere between the first and second Communist emergencies. She however later overcame her fear of people in facemasks and offered to open her gates to us should we be chased by police. Tear gas canisters were being fired and as we were isolated, we thought it was best to keep moving to try and head for Maharajalela.

We had to skip two Monorail and LRT stations due to heavy police presence around and finally made it to Dang Wangi. Here, to our dismay we were told ALL stations in KL have been locked down by management, including KL Sentral, which means we could not make it to Maharajalela by train. To our further dismay, we were told even this station was being closed and all trains were being grounded after the last one. I called a friend who was at Shaw and was Ambiga was detained and Anwar was injured, and that they were soon dispersing.We then decided to leave first, as there appeared to be nothing more we could do at that point. Disappointed that I could not be there for that last part,I was still happy I at least made it into the city, joined the rally and for at least half the time, was part of the people’s movement called Bersih. In all the excitement, fear, exhilaration, anger we felt that day, throughout the emotional roller coaster ride,there was a deeper sense of purpose, a poignant, reflective realization that we were in something far greater than ourselves.

We somehow managed to slip past police and saw that quite a few of Pasar Seni crowd was still locked in and so was the Klang bus stand crowd.After getting down at Bangsar and walking to Abdullah Hukum,I finally boarded a train headed home. A group in the train crowd seemed to eyeball me suspiciously and though they looked much like the PAS activists I saw earlier in the morning, they did not look ‘brutalized’ enough to have just participated in Bersih, and so I kept to myself, worried that they were a group of SBs, or worse, silat exponents who wanted to beat me up.
Soon enough though, someone from that group asked me if I came from Bersih.When he found out I was, he happily called out to his friends and a small crowd gathered.

Apparently though, they were part of the Bersih group who came late and were locked in earlier at KL Sentral, missing most of the day’s events. At the end of it all, when they found out the number of people who came in and how the crowd was mixed,and how even the old, physically challenged,young all came out in full force today, the guy who spoke to me earlier shouted ‘Takbir!’ and three quarters of the coach resonated with ‘Allahuakbar’. Yes my friend, 50,000 made it despite the insurmountable odds stacked against them- God is indeed great.

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