Should we still believe in peaceful protests?

— Ksatriya
The Malaysian Insider
May 02, 2012

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

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 1:46 am

    428, d scene b4 3pm was what UmnoB/BN FEAR most: rakyat of all walks of life n colours, young n old, responded voluntarily (without being bribed RM50 or 100 or more) 2 BERSIH3.0 n gathered happily n peacefully as 1 big family

    Dis UmnoB/BN could not accept, cos they r race-based parties and remain in power owing 2 their DIVIDE n RULE manipulations
    UmnoB/BN MUST make sure there was CHAOS n attempt 2 riot by BERSIH3.0 participants

    It was all planned/orchestrated 2 PUNISH rakyat a bitter, painful lesson
    Mata2 in yellow BERSIH T-shirts, mata2 with NO name tags ALL primed 2 attack unarmed, helpless, peaceful rakyat

    GO n view videos that show d BRUTAL, NAKED VIOLENCE of mata2 who acted like mob n whacked rakyat; truly sick 2 C many mata2 kicked, whacked a fallen citizen

  2. #2 by boh-liao on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 2:04 am

    2 bersihkan UmnoB/BN after BERSIH3.0, almost on cue n encore, we now hv another SEKs skandal, oral seks, splashed across msm 2 distract rakyat fr d brutal violence of mata2

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 6:28 am

    We know all the good things Bersih 3.0 has brought out – Malaysians are no more in fear of standing up to be counted for asserting our democratic rights, camaraderie 1 Malaysia fashion irrespective of race, religion, creed, socio economic position, united to show (by peaceful demonstration without rioting or damage to public property) the middle finger at the abuse of power and electoral process to the powers-that-be! It could have ended as one happy carnival though it didn’t when authorities/police, which had shown remarkable restraint until 3 pm onwards, suddenly changed stance and attacked the crowds with chemical laced water tear gas and brutality. Enough had been said & documented of many cases of the authorities’ brutality which cannot be defended, indeed should be roundly condemned. Sure these heavy-handed tactics would generate anger that would be expressed in the ballot boxes in next GE against BN. However the question is whether this advantage is justification for some Opposition leaders to have a hand direct or indirect in the breach of the barricades giving the other side the excuse to unleash the brutality and heavy handed tactics of which from past experience is known and even predictable. Are we lambs to be used for this political purpose?

  4. #4 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 6:44 am

    Bersih IS working. UMNO-Perkasa/BN has lost 3-0 to Bersih and each time the losses got bigger. Anything this big will have problems such as people getting out of hand or sabateurs. In the overall scheme of things, its tiny. Even the fact that Anwar & Azmin misjudgement is where the mess is does not change most of the significance.

    In fact its a lesson to everyone be it BN or the out-of-control, saboteurs and Anwar & Azmin – this thing is bigger than ALL of them. Any cynical attempt to take advantage is temporary..ALL will be accounted for because its the will of the people..

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 6:46 am

    I have watched press conference by Anwar & Azmin. Anwar said his rolling gesture with both hands at Azmin was to ask to “negotiate” with PDRM for the crowd to enter Dataran. He said that although he did not instigate the crowd to remove barriers, yet considering they came all the way to sit in Dataran he would not condemn but would support their right to do so. In any case neither of the PKR’s leaders took the microphone to order the crowd there not to breach what Bersih’s Ambiga had undertaken with authorities ie not to breach the barrier/barricades. In fact a Negeri Sembilan PKR leader has been remanded for 3 days on allegations that he was first to breach the police barricades.

  6. #6 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 7:07 am

    Here is another way to know Bersih is working. Bersih got bigger and bigger but what do UMNO-Perkasa/BN do? They bury their head in the sand and keep repeating the things that failed again and again. Its especially significant that the top leaders from Najib, Muhiyiddin, Hishamuddin, the police, etc. they are repeating the same thing over and over again when they have said it themselves – doing the same thing over and over again when its failing, won’t change anything..

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 7:50 am

    Yes by all counts police response was disproportionate and condemnable in many cases for brutality. It is not entirely unexpected given track record and past experience of Bersih 1.0 and 2.0. Does the condemnability or blameworthiness of brutal police retaliation absolve/excuse (cause & effect wise) the instigation of it or at least providing the pretext for it to be unleashed on the peaceful gathering (just for advancement of Opposition’s political objective of whipping up anti BN sentiments)? Many came to the rally with peaceful demonstration in mind and bring tow their young children and women folks. Is it responsible for politicians, just have political ends, to instigate or do nothing proactive to stop the break of barriers that seemingly made police restraint (up to 3 pm) drastically change to the opposite? People are injured not just in the ensuing melee not just by falling tear gas canister and police brutality, but by stampede and what not, and minors apprehended, old people like me getting my leg fractured etc. It’s not that organizers told everyone to be prepared for violence so that those who came, came prepared to assume that risks. Instead many came on assurance that everything would be peaceful as organizers would abide by police court order obtained not to breach the barriers set up. (The issue that court order is is misconceived in law is not relevant in this context in whichorganisers evinced an intention to abide).

    • #8 by lkt-56 on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 10:33 am

      Politicians manipulate public opinion by whatever means they can. Even sex has been used. In order not to play into the authorities hand do not partake on the blame game. If you do so then you are allowing yourself to be used as a pawn in this political game of chess. The Bersih supporters should not give up on their struggle for free and fair election.

  8. #9 by drngsc on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 8:33 am

    We all know that Bersih 3.0.1 was obviously peaceful.
    Somewhere between 2.30pm to 3pm, someone introduced Bersih 3.0.2, a very aggressive, cruel, brutal, and harmful virus. We were infiltrated with a virus, and things got out of control.
    I fear to answer the question, I like a peaceful transformation through the ballot box. But would BN / UMNO allow it?

    We need to change the tenant at Putrajaya. They do not respect us anymore. They were prepared to harm us and maim us.
    GE 13 is coming, let us throw them out. They will cheat, but God will help us. We must throw them out.

    Change we must. Change we can. Change we will.

  9. #10 by yhsiew on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 8:34 am

    The fault is not in the peaceful protest itself, but rather, the way the police and organizers handle the protest will dictate whether the rally will go awry. In the latest event, instead of firing teargas, the police could have immediately handcuffed those who crossed the barrier into Dataran to serve as a deterent to others who wished to follow suit. Such action could have prevented the rally from getting out of hand. In fact, the police could have used loud-hailers to warn the approaching crowd before they attempted to cross the barrier.

  10. #11 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 8:51 am

    Oh come come. Losing sleep and getting depressed over bersih’s “less than peaceful” outcome? Get real boy! It was wonderful. “A+”, I say. The oppressed silent majority has awaken. And THAT is important. Just imagine. Even senior citizens and youths (whose interest today lies in k-pop and j-pop and american idols and next top models) too were in the action. That is Woooow!, isnt it?

    Actually umno did good too. Umno co-operated well by showing all these people (and the whole country, lets not forget that) the reasons why umno must be rejected in GE13. Umno gave all of us a real life and real time and actual demonstration of those reasons.

    So relak boy. You did well! You mother would be proud of you.

  11. #12 by lkt-56 on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 10:25 am

    First let us not lose sight of the objective of the merdeka sit-in protest. Politicians will be involved for sure as both sides have a stake in this issue of free and fair election. In my own opinion I believe that it will not be a surprise if someone in their exuberance tried to breach the barrier into the square. The authorities have anticipated that and are prepared to turn this breach into an advantage to discredit Bersih and hence question Bersih’s intention. Therefore do not let the authorities off the hook. Pursue the issue relentlessly! Press for the resignation of the EC double!

  12. #13 by Cinapek on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 11:27 am

    “….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.” **…”

    By all accounts, this seems to be closer to the truth than anything else.

    The powers that be have seen that this rally is a huge success and they need to trivalise it and at the same time punish the participants for having defied them. Their vengeful, petty and spiteful characters cannot accept that despite all their best efforts of barb wires, court orders etc has not discouraged the people. Instead it has galvanised them. Must take revenge regardless whether you are children, young or old. As long as you are there you must be punished.

    Plan B takes over. Agent provocateurs spring into action to provide the excuse. Timed to inflict maximum pain, the PDRM moves in with their water cannons and tear gas. Block all escape routes. Close down the LRT stations to prevent any mass dispersals. Keep firing tear gas into the trapped escaping crowd to teach them a painful lesson never to defy BN and rally again.

    Najib and co. you are wrong. You never learn. Each time you use strong arm tactics to , the people just comes back stronger.

  13. #14 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 12:04 pm

    Look at the rally. From the night before when the crowd began to show up till round about (wot?) 3:30pm the next day (i.e. 28th April) the rally was actually peaceful and carnival-like. That was the time period when ambiga & co was in charge of the event. However, umno decided to take charge of the crowd at 3:30pm. And umno did so with tear gas and water cannon. So realistically speaking ambiga & co’s planned peaceful rally did materialise. It was just unfortunate that umno with a different agenda decided to excite the crowd. So really ambiga & co’s performance should be assessed up until 3:30pm only. I give them “A+”. What happened thereafter was a measurement of umno’s failure to handle the same crowd. Jib, I give you “F”.

  14. #15 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 1:28 pm

    ///Politicians manipulate public opinion by whatever means they can. Even sex has been used. In order not to play into the authorities hand do not partake on the blame game./// – #8 by Ikt-56

    Which is precisely why PR’s leaders should give BN no cause to blame for violence perpetrated by BN’s own uniformed personel! Already Home Minister has said they’re looking into an independent panel to investigate the ruckus and allegations of police brutality which necessarily is connected to issues of proportionality of police response and what and who was first cause of everything turning out that way. For people who don’t want to look bad -to the extent of censoring part of BBC & Al Jazeera coverage of Bersih, isn’t it strange the government is so gungho to propose an independent public enquiry age to bite the bullet of its own security force’s brutality (in name transparency and accountability)? I would rather think the intent is to expose whatever caught on video of PKR’s leaders’ gestures/antics which will point the finger of culpability at them as first cause of the Mayhem that activated police crackdown and its ensuing casualties. This is not going to be about Anwar & sex which public are not receptive: its going to be about doing things calculated to breach of public order endangering irresponsibly the multitudes that gathered there.

    • #16 by lkt-56 on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 2:23 pm

      It seems to me that you do not understand. Never mind… let us enjoy the series of posts recounting the people’s joy of being a part of Bersih 3.0: “When people fill the streets”, “Here they come, the beautiful ones”, :Claiming back our freedom”, “Viva Malaysia”, and “Worth every moment”.

  15. #17 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 1:33 pm

    The PKR guy who was remanded will be grilled as to who gave the order for him to remove the barrier. Wait and see what he is going to say.

  16. #18 by Comrade on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 1:34 pm

    Should we still believe in peaceful protests?
    Why not, it is in the people’s interests
    It’s democratic, not against the Constitution
    A last resort to teach the corrupt a lesson
    Still no reforms then unleash Bersih 4.0
    Come GE13, show Umno/BN the door

  17. #19 by Lee Wang Yen on Thursday, 3 May 2012 - 3:14 pm

    Syahredzan Johan, a lawyer, argues that breaching the barricades does not constitute a breach of the court order, which keeps the Merdeka Square rather than its surrounding roads out of bounds.

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