By now I’m sure most Malaysians (and many people internationally) know about the Bersih 2.0 movement. Writing this took a little longer than I thought, but I’d just like to take this opportunity to share my experience of it, and hope that it offers some additional information of that day.
The sun rises. It’s off to the Forbidden City of Kuala Lumpur I go.
I must say that I was quite scared during the last few days before Bersih 2.0 (henceforth referred to as Bersih), with all the threats going around of violence, police crackdowns and sadly even silat groups, I was seriously questioning if it would turn into another May 13, and whether I’d be able to get home. I thought about writing a note for my parents and girlfriend just in case, but decided to stay positive and skipped it. I had prepared some items such as salt, a bottle of water, a towel, and the all-important “illegal” plain yellow shirt, and went for breakfast with my parents, a meal which somehow felt important. After that my dad dropped me off at the LRT station and at 9am I headed into the Forbidden City. Even at the Paramount LRT station there was a police presence, but fortunately they didn’t look twice at me, and I kept my eyes firmly trained on my phone while I walked past them. Despite all the brouhaha by the government, there were still plenty of people in the LRT going into town, though I wasn’t sure if they were joining the rally or not. While I was planning to go to KLCC and walk, I noticed that the Pasar Seni station looked pretty safe, and it was very near the Stadium Merdeka that we were supposed to assemble at, so I got off at that station. Police were present at the station too, but they didn’t stop anybody. I chanced upon a group of young students who were busy discussing their alibi in case they were asked where they were going (the KLCC education fair apparently), so I introduced myself and joined them, it’s pretty obvious why everybody is in the Forbidden City anyways.
We started hunting around for a place to hang out and bide our time, but almost all the shops were closed, even the McDonald’s opposite Kota Raya. Fortunately there was a Subway sandwich restaurant that was open nearby and we went there to get some food and wait. Slowly people started to come into the restaurant and after a glance at each other, we all knew why we were here. In the few hours we were waiting, we kept in touch with the news via Twitter, reading reports of the police checking bags at the Masjid Jamek station and also see the number of arrests go up to around 200 or so. One reassuring thing that happened was that four BAR Council members came in too, and they gave us flyers that contained instructions on how to answer the police if they tried to do anything funny, along with our rights. After more people came, the atmosphere became more relaxed and one of my futsal friends managed to join me too.
The people arrive!
Eventually someone mentioned that the crowd had come, so we packed up and went down, and I must say: what a sight it was! While we were previously keeping a low profile, the sight of several thousand people walking together towards us and calling for free and fair elections was really a sight to behold, not to mention the fact that fear was replaced with confidence and belief, suddenly we weren’t scared anymore. I joined the crowd and walked with them along Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin. Along the way, I even saw some East Malaysians dressed in their traditional garb, showing that support wasn’t only in the Peninsula of Malaysia.
The crowd eventually moved towards the Maybank building and everybody was hanging around there for a while. I noticed that they begun to group together and were waiting for something, and it turns out that the group of the direction of Jalan Pudu was arriving. Seeing the two groups merge together was awesome and everybody was in a good mood. With that large a crowd, it was pretty obvious that I could wear my yellow shirt, so I quickly swapped it with my blue shirt. Every now and then the odd car would drive by and the people would instruct each other to clear a path, it was pretty smooth, which is a far cry from what the traffic jams that the police were causing every night with their roadblocks. Everything was pretty good and then the inevitable happened, the water cannon was fired from the direction of Masjid Jamek…
The police begin to attack.
Considering all the noise that the police and the government were making in the build up to the rally, it really was no surprise that they begun to attack us, and I’m fairly sure it was without good reason. Initially me and my friend didn’t move far, since the water was till quite far away, but when it steadily moved in our direction, we had to back off. Not to long after that, the tear gas canisters were fired, and that’s when we decided we needed to move a little faster.
My section of the group begun to walk up Jalan Pudu, towards Tung Shin hospital, and despite the water cannon, nobody was panicking or running, it was an orderly shuffle up the street. I honestly didn’t know what the plan was, but there were people in the crowd that did, so I was quite happy to follow their lead. Just as we were about to pass Tung Shin hospital, there was a bunch of policemen (FRU?) blocking the path before us, so we couldn’t go forward. It started to rain, and quite a few of us were happy, since we were hoping that it would dampen the effects of the tear gas. We were in a bit of a pickle as we couldn’t move forward, and we couldn’t go back to the Maybank building, so we stayed where we were. The guys around us begun to sing our National Anthem, and it was one of those rare moments that you see people sing Negaraku with heart, instead of a sense of boredom instead of at events due to obligations. Of course, the merry atmosphere didn’t last as the tear gas attack resumed.
The Tung Shin attack: The evilest deed I’ve ever seen in my life.
As the the gas started to waft over, we begun to back off, and we could begin to feel the sting again. Of course, things got worse, especially when a tear gas canister landed about five feet away from me, and in such a crowd, you can’t really run away. Me and my friend tried to shuffle away as fast as we could, but it felt really bad. My friend didn’t have a towel to cover his face and even though I did, it still felt terrible. To make matters worse, your reflex is to pull the cloth down to try and catch a breath of air, which is of course even worse since you get a larger dose of the acrid gas. Our eyes stung and we couldn’t keep them open, so we had to run blind, and I had to rummage through my bag blindly to try and get hold of the 500ml of water in my bag to try and clear our eyes. It was one of those rare moments where you suddenly start to think if you’d ever get out of the situation in one piece. The fact that you couldn’t really breathe meant that I really felt like kneeling down to gasp, but at the back of your head you know if you stop you’re in deep trouble and might not be able to walk out, so I kept going. We managed to stumble to the space beside Tung Shin hospital and people we’re rushing to a small sink there, we managed to get some water out of the tap, but it dried up just as my friend was about to use it – talk about bad timing.
As we retreated behind the building, there was a kind Malay guy who came to talk to us and reminded us not to rub our faces, since it’d spread the effects of the tear gas around. Right after that, this Indian guy came over and had salt on his palm, patting our hands on his and telling us to lick the salt as it’ll ease the effects/pain of the tear gas. That was a really awesome scene where everybody was banding together, much better than any empty 1Malaysia rhetoric that our government likes to ramble on about. We were about to make our way back down to Jalan Pudu, but suddenly people started backing up again, and considering the fact that our faces were still sore from tear gas, we quickly backed off. As we approached the slope by the side of Tung Shin, there were two Malay guys on the top of the slope with hands extended, each grabbing one of our hands and pulling us up, and they kept pulling one person after another. We managed to catch a quick breather there and there were cheers from Tung Shin hospital and we looked up to see two nurses waving yellow cloths down at us. The sight was really comforting and touching, and as we waved back, suddenly we heard the sound of the teargas gun being fired again, and this time, we saw it fly into the Tung Shin compound. I’d like to stress that despite what our “brilliant” politicians and police would like to say, there was tear gas fired into the Tung Shin compound, I was there, and I saw it with my own smarting eyes.
That’s when I started spewing expletives and we took the only exit we had, which was through the hill next to Tung Shin in the direction of Jalan Raja Chulan. We had to run in a crouched manner in fact, as we were worried that we’d be hit by a canister, though fortunately that didn’t happen. After going through the hills, some of the other guys congratulated and thanked us on being there and we did the same, the camaraderie was great. Back at Tung Shin something happened, though I wasn’t sure what it was, but people started running again, so we did the same. When we reached Raja Chulan, we couldn’t go back towards the Maybank building as the police were still there, so we joined the bunch of people taking a walk towards the Weld. We also took a pit stop at the petrol station to buy some more water, and there was a long queue at the station minimart, refuting claims that there would be no business in KL for merchants. At this point I realized that Bukit Bintang was not too far ahead, supposedly where the UMNO Youth “Patriots” were making a nuisance of themselves. I was already fairly worried that the whole thing might turn into another May 13 and had this worry that they were herding us into a confrontation. With that in mind, we ducked off the street and hid for a while, since it was nearly 4pm and there was no way we could get to Stadium Merdeka in time anyways. I felt we did our part in adding to the numbers in town, so we backed off.
The long road home.
When we came out to the main road again, it was pretty empty. the official timing of the Bersih rally was over, and the organizers were preparing to hold a press conference. From there, we begun the journey home. It was a little tricker than expected as most of the monorail stations near KL Sentral were all closed, and we found out the hard way that the KLCC Putra LRT was closed too. Fortunately the Ampang Park LRT was working, and we took that back. Hilariously, I passed by the FRU on the way to the LRT station and also noticed a pile of horse shit along the KLCC road, and I could only tweet “tak Bersih lah…“.
Aftermath and thoughts.
After it was all over (or throughout the event), reports were in that Ambiga, Tian Chua, and many others were arrested, Anwar was injured and in hospital. The really sad news came that Baharudin Ahmad had died during a police attack, due to tear gas and some heart complications. I chanced upon a video showing him tied up and spasming in the plastic handcuffs and they were unable to get him out of it since nobody brought scissors, not to mention the fact that the police just stood around. It was a really sad thing to see and hear.
As I was reading the tweets, I realized that one of the students I met in Subway earlier in the morning was arrested and his friends were busy trying to contact the parents and get him released. As I read the tweets later into the night, he was released around 11pm or so.
On a happier note, I was asking this girl earlier in the day about something and I spoke to her in Malay, not realizing that she was Chinese. As I poked around the pictures on Facebook that night, I found a picture taken by her with the comments mentioning me, turns out she’s a friend of a guy a helped out many years back. I’ve since introduced myself to her and her friend, and we’re back in touch. Small world it is indeed.
The Malaysian Lady of Liberty – Aunty Bersih.
One of the many things worth mentioning from the Bersih rally is that we now have a new mascot of freedom, Annie Ooi, our “Aunty Bersih” and so called Malaysian Lady of Liberty.
The government and police have done a darned good job of getting many Malaysians, who originally didn’t give two hoots about politics, wanting to register and vote, and I’m fairly sure it’s not going to be in the government’s favor. I’ve had quite a number of my friends tell me that they’re going to vote in the next GE, and i sincerely hope that they do.
Some friends asked me why I went, and I can only answer that it was something that needed to be done. After all that, I have even more respect for the folks who braved war and had to live through May 13th. I just tell myself that I have to do this, and I pray very hard that the next generation won’t have to go through these kind of things.
I saw many things that day, I saw corruption; police brutality; unity; Malaysians helping one another; but most of all, I saw hope.