A few hooligans spoiled a successful rally for an important cause. The resulting violence became the fodder of mainstream media spin. It diverted attention from the main story of the day, i.e. that many, many people turned up for Bersih 3.0 in Kuala Lumpur, togged in symbolic yellow, and the rally was a huge success.
What got muted was the message that Malaysians stood up to be counted over the issue of free and fair elections. If the number that showed up was reported, it got buried in the pile of the more dramatic reports about the violence.
What got muted was the message that the Government, the Election Commission and everyone involved in the electoral process must now take heed and institute real electoral reform before the 13th general election is held.
Having been to both Bersih 2.0 and Bersih 3.0, I can confidently say that there were many, many more at Bersih 3.0 than at the preceding rally last July.
Those who were there on April 28 can testify that the rally was peaceful – indeed, the protestors shared a strong sense of camaraderie (everyone there who was a stranger felt like a friend) and the atmosphere was festive – and although the afternoon heat added to the discomfort of bodies pressing against each other as protestors shuffled towards Dataran Merdeka, there was calm, there was tolerance, buoyed by a sense of purpose.
I was among the people moving along Jalan Tun Perak towards the intersection with Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and Jalan Raja. It was so packed that at one point when we were instructed to sit down, it was almost impossible to do so. There was literally standing room only.
But people were well-behaved. Our fervor was expressed in shouting “Bersih! Bersih!” Someone played on a drum and we chanted to the rhythm of his beats.
There was not a single hint of potential violence. So I sidled my way forward to get to the barricade of barbed wire that had been set up by the police to keep us out of the Dataran area. I managed to get pretty close to it.
Then suddenly, I saw gas wafting down from the monorail embankment above. This was followed by the sound of tear gas shots. It was all very sudden.
The crowd turned and moved quickly back. If people had panicked, it might have led to a stampede. As it was, we kept our cool, but even so there was a small measure of pushing, so it was easy to stumble and fall. I saw one young woman being attended to by medical volunteers for having sustained an injury.
Meanwhile, the gas was attacking my ears and nose although I had a handkerchief pressed to the lower part of my face. I decided to head away from the trouble spot. But from Petaling Street, the police were firing tear gas as well. And this hit me the worst. I couldn’t breathe. My nostrils were filled with mucus. I blew my nose, but I still couldn’t breathe. I thought I might collapse.
But fellow protestors were helpful. They readily offered salt. I took some, and it helped. A Good Samaritan was giving away free ice cubes from his cart, parked beside the road. I dug into them and scooped some into my handkerchief.
It was time to go home. I saw others having the same thought. Many of us headed for the nearest LRT station. I had no idea then that the cause of all the tear-gassing had been the attempt by a few among the crowd to breach the barricade at Dataran. I had no idea that water cannons had also been employed.
I only found out an hour later when a friend SMSed me about the violence. I was stunned. More than that, I felt sad.
Was the violence caused by hooligans who were planted? To create an incident that would take away the glory of Bersih 3.0’s success?
Why break through the barricade? What would it have achieved? What was the objective of getting into the square?
Bersih 3.0 had already made its point – through the massive turnout. Its co-chairperson Ambiga Sreenevasen had by then called on everyone to disperse.
So why was there a group of people who still wanted to charge forward?
The reports on what actually happened have not been clear nor conclusive. Some say that PKR Deputy President Azmin incited the crowd to break the barricade. If it’s true, Azmin was behaving stupidly.
Some also say that members of PAS’s Unit Amal were among those who broke through. If it’s true, PAS needs to deal with them severely, because their action would have brought the unit a loss of respect.
On the other hand, are the police blameless?
Why did they not instantly nab the few who broke through the barricade and thereby nip the attempt in the bud, then issue a stern warning to stop others from advancing? After all, the FRU personnel keeping guard were many.
Why were they so trigger-happy and straight away shot tear gas into the crowd? Some people were hit by the canisters. Worse, if there had been a stampede, people could have died. Were the police behaving responsibly?
And why did the police shoot tear gas from the non-barricaded areas in Jalan Pudu and Petaling Street as well? People were already dispersing and going home.
Why was the police retaliation so vicious? Why did they become aggressors? Looking at the videos taken of some of the arrests they subsequently made, one can see how vindictively they beat up their quarry, beyond the bounds of decency.
Perhaps it was the provocation of the tear gas and water cannons that riled the protestors into behaving like monsters. Perhaps they were not real Bersih supporters, merely people out to make mischief whenever they saw an opportunity. Perhaps they were hired thugs. Nonetheless, the police should have acted with restraint.
I’m inclined to suspect that the people who resorted to violence were hired thugs.
As The Malaysian Insider reported:
About 1,000-odd protestors spread along Jalan Tun Perak and Jalan Raja Laut continued to defy police orders even after the rally ended at 4pm, taunting and jeering the men in blue ...
Amid the chaos, rumours were being spread that at least four protesters had died in the melee, with claims that one was even shot dead, further fuelling the crowd’s anger.
This sounds like people were out to create mischief, especially by spreading false rumors of deaths.
Videos of the police car that crashed near Sogo also seem to indicate that it had been attacked by mischief-makers, including one who trampled on its roof even as it was moving. And afterwards, the car was overturned, but for what real reason?
Was it not to provide dramatic images for the media that would make Bersih look bad? Was it not to overwhelm the images of the sea of yellow flowing towards Dataran when the rally was at high tide?
On the eve of the rally, a Facebook friend of mine who seemed to know sent a message: “Just a word of warning. There may be ‘hired’ bouncers sent to Dataran Merdeka this Saturday… So just be prepared for that.”
A TV station also reported that the Bandar Tun Razak branch of Pekida (Pertubuhan Kebajikan dan Dakwah Islamiah Malaysia) had declared war (perang) on Bersih 3.0 and warned that its members would go to the rally and fight it to the end. “We don’t care if we are taken into the lock-up, we will do what we promised,” said its chairman, Ahmad Bastari Muslim.
Do we add two and two and come up with four?
Whatever it was, that group that broke the barricade is a very small minority. And certainly, the group that attacked the police car constitutes a deviant minority. They should not be allowed to take away the good that Bersih 3.0 represents.
And let us not forget that when the crowd tried to attack the policemen after their car came to a stop, it was PKR’s Jingga 13 who protected the cops from being harmed until the ambulance came to take them away.
If by a conservative estimate, 100,000 people were at the rally, I can vouch that at least 99,000 were not troublemakers. That’s an overwhelming percentage of people with good intentions. Why sully a rally because of the few bad apples, who might even have been planted?
In Penang (7,000 participants), Ipoh (4,000), Melaka (3,000), Johor Baru (3,000), Kuching (500), Miri (2,000), Kota Kinabalu (500) and other major cities, the protests went on peacefully. So what does that indicate? Bersih supporters are not out to create violence.
Before the KL rally, an e-mail was sent out on the do’s and don’ts for a peaceful gathering. People were advised not to bring weapons or sharp objects, not even umbrellas. Then on the day itself, just before the rally started, Bersih 3.0’s organizers conducted a briefing and reminded the crowd massed outside Pasar Seni about the need to maintain peace and not retaliate against provocation.
The initial provocation came, ironically, from Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL). It denied Bersih 3.0 its right to hold its sit-down protest at Dataran. It said Dataran was only for “national events”. But if a huge part of the population wants to voice its feelings for something it deems important, that should already constitute a “national event”.
Besides, DBKL was not honest in giving that reason; Dataran has been used before for non-national events, like Nestle’s 100th year celebration, OCBC Cycle Malaysia, Barisan National Youth Ride Fest 2012.
Clearly, the Government outsourced the bad-guy role to DBKL this time after having learned its lesson from mishandling Bersih 2.0, and this time, DBKL mishandled it. The barbed wire around Dataran was unnecessary; it actually proved to be provocative. So if anyone could be blamed for provoking anger, it would be DBKL.
Let us, however, not be distracted by all the ugliness that has marred the rally in KL – and restore due credit to Bersih 3.0.
It drew Malaysians from all races, all ages, all walks of life, able-bodied and otherwise, to an event that some of its participants have declared was “for the good of the country’s future”.
It drew Malaysians in other major Malaysian cities and those in 85 cities and towns throughout the world. It gave voice to Malaysians who want electoral reform before the 13th general election.
Let us not cloud the issue. The people have spoken. Will those in authority choose to listen or merely harp on the ugly incidents?
Their decision could decide the future of Malaysia.
*The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the writer.