Did the police lose control that day?

by Azrul Mohd Khalib
The Malaysian Insider
May 09, 2012

MAY 9 — In my column last week on Bersih 3.0, I was quite hesitant to share in detail my account of what I had seen and experienced on the streets of Kuala Lumpur later that day. My belief that with the many videos, photographs and victims of police misconduct (read: brutality), the truth would surely get out. There would be no denying the fact that the police on that day had lost control of their men.

But I am now quite disquieted by the fact that there seems to be a group of people out there who are saying that the actions of the police (tear gas, water cannon, detention, forceful and abusive treatment of those being arrested) were justified as the rally participants had breached the perimeter of the security barricade, resisted arrest and engaged in hand to hand combat. Basically, that they had it coming because the rally participants provoked the police.

Let’s first put things into perspective.

First and foremost, the perimeter of the security barricade surrounding Dataran Merdeka was breached by rally protestors. It wasn’t undercover agents of the police, members of the Barisan Nasional component parties, paid troublemakers or some shadowy phantom of someone’s armchair conspiracy theory. These guys were one of us.

How do I know? Last week, during the Centre for Independent Journalism’s (CIJ) forum on Bersih 3.0, a person stood up and said, “Let’s find the bastards who broke the agreement and hand them over to the police.” Another person stood up and said, “I am one of those bastards.” I was taken aback because I know the guy. So rally participants did deliberately breach the perimeter.

But did the breach justify the violent, unprofessional, and thuggish behaviour of many members of the police force on that day?

Nobody whom I saw being arrested had resisted. We had been earlier briefed to not resist if we were detained by law enforcement officials. Even those who were eating or drinking peacefully at nearby restaurants or warungs before being dragged away (in one case told to me by the victim, thrown down a staircase) and arrested, did not physically resist.

Based on what I saw that day, the opportunities for inflicted abuse occurred at two points: when a person was being detained on the street and when that person was being brought to the holding area.

Together with a number of media personnel, we saw several incidences of yellow-shirted individuals being thrown onto the ground and assaulted. They could be seen trying to defend themselves while being kicked, punched and trodden upon under the boots of seven to eight police officers who wore uniforms without nametags or identification numbers.

There were repeated kicks and punches to the face, abdomen and back. People were being beaten into the ground. These occurred at several locations opposite the CIMB building and nearby Masjid Jamek LRT station, and were done by different uniformed perpetrators.

A nearby photographer who attempted to take photos during one particular assault was threatened and had his camera battery and memory card confiscated and destroyed. A number of police personnel threatened us with retractable batons. However, I did not see them use them on anyone.

People would later be frogmarched to the holding area behind the Royal Selangor Club (RSC). During the long journey from the main road in front of the OCBC and CIMB buildings to the RSC, those detained had to go through a corridor or gauntlet lined with men in dark blue field fatigues lounging on the side of the road where a fist, a flying kick, or a blow to the head would randomly come out of nowhere.

It was fairly obvious that they were working out their frustrations and anger on those who had been detained. Most of those who arrived at the holding area had head injuries of some kind, had blood on their T-shirts and had experienced some kind of assault by those doing the arresting. Reports later highlighted a case where even a 71- year-old woman was arrested and punched by a police officer!

According to Hospital Kuala Lumpur, 117 persons which included 11 police officers were either hospitalised or sought treatment. This high number of injured persons did not include the number of walking wounded who had relatively light injuries such as cuts and bruises.

To those who have said that the police were provoked, I ask you, what provocation justified such abusive treatment? Are the police akin to bulls, where the wearing of yellow or green T-shirts would enrage them?

Indeed, after 5pm on that day, I saw both sides provoking each other with projectiles and taunts being thrown in both directions. But the ones with the weapons and utilising tactics that involved beating up unresisting and unarmed rally participants were the ones in uniform.

The senior police leadership have called upon those who have witnessed such abuses to come forward and help identify their men who have been involved in these incidences. I am sorry, sirs, but many of those who were victims of such abuse were too busy trying to protect their faces with their hands and different parts of their bodies.

The faces of the many perpetrators in uniform are a blur even to me, a witness to the abuse and who did not suffer such treatment. Their names? They were not wearing their nametags, which is against police regulations for officers on duty. These perpetrators took the trouble to avoid identification. They felt that they could and would be able to get away with it. They did it with impunity.

I think that the police on that day lost control of their men. How else does a person explain the senseless violence, mistreatment and wanton abuse heaped upon not only a large number of those who were detained by the police, but also members of the media? Not convinced? Read pages 25 -30 of the Bar Council’s interim report on Bersih 3.0.

The police have announced that action will be taken against those who broke the law. I agree. How about the police officers who broke the law in using excessive and disproportionate force as well as physically assaulting those being arrested?

Will action be taken against them and their superior officers? The latter are accountable for the actions of their men. At the very least, a number of senior police officers must resign to take responsibility for the loss of control and for the actions of their men under their command that day.

The Royal Malaysia Police (RMP) has a proud and honourable tradition in law enforcement that is rooted in the very essence and being of Malaysia’s existence. I remember visiting the police museum when I was younger and thinking that it is a tough and thankless job being a law enforcement officer. The men in blue have always been essential and dependent upon to safeguard the security of the Malaysian people.

When we compare the quality of law enforcement in several countries in the region, we should count ourselves lucky to have the RMP. We must have faith in their ability to keep our families, communities and country safe. We must also trust and respect them. But trust and respect must be earned and right now, I think the police force has taken a beating in this area.

The motto of the RMP is Tegas (strict), Adil (fair) and Berhemah (well-mannered). Let us not allow our Malaysian police force to be besmirched by thugs in uniform. They are not representative of all in the service who have chosen to serve.

Indeed the FRU officers in riot gear and those on duty at Pulapol were in control, reasonable and extremely professional. We need to support the RMP in bringing to justice those among their ranks who brought dishonour and disservice to the service by physically assaulting unarmed and unresisting fellow Malaysians that day.

  1. #1 by bumiborn on Wednesday, 9 May 2012 - 11:01 pm

    The atmosphere of tear gas background, FRU officers stop short of a Bersih participant sitting on the road with a foreigner clearly display the restraint and professionalism of FRU officers. Should the two met with police, they would have been whack left right and centre, bleeding all over. Police on 428 acted completely like thug. Sad sad day for the police force!

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