by: Bhavan Jaipragas/
I spent nearly eight hours on the streets of Kuala Lumpur last Saturday, most times walking and talking to random strangers, but at times running from freshly shot tear gas canisters and cowering behind cars in alleyways hoping I would not be picked up by baton wielding policemen.
I returned to my hotel room quite exhausted, and turned on the television hoping to get some respite from the high drama I had just experienced.
The state-controlled TV1 network was using the evening Malay news to display its mastery of propaganda. ‘What will the world think of us now?’ was the rhetorical question used as the primer for the network’s coverage of the Bersih 2.0 protests. Almost a dozen people were interviewed, all of whom castigated the protestors.
One interviewee, a taxi driver from Kuala Lumpur, was exceptionally vehement in his condemnation. Using the word malu (embarrassed) at least thrice, he went on a tirade about how Malaysia’s reputation had suffered a huge dent because of the protestors.
Strange. Standing in the rain on Saturday afternoon at Hentian Puduraya in downtown Kuala Lumpur where more than 15,000 protesters had massed, I hardly thought lesser of my Malaysian brethren for taking to the streets the way they did.
The gathering of people of different races, religions, classes and creeds for a common cause was in fact reflective of their growing maturity as a people. The Bersih movement seemed to have a far greater unifying effect among the rakyat – the commonly used term to refer to the Malaysian citizenry – than Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia campaign has ever had.
In the line of fire
At around half past noon, I began following a group of close to 2,000 protestors belonging to the Democratic Action Party (DAP) from the Bukit Bintang area to the cross junction next to Puduraya, where thousands of other protestors from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Bersih 2.0 affiliated groups had already gathered. If they were up to mischief, they gave away no clue of such intentions.
Dozens of volunteers with Bersih 2.0 stickers pasted on their shirts served as crowd control, keeping protestors within one lane of the road where possible, while others directed traffic. As the crowd neared Puduraya, the chants grew louder. The whirring of the police helicopter overhead – at times hovering at a very low height in what seemed to be a manoevre to intimidate – was met with relentless cries of ‘Hidup Rakyat!’ (Long live the people), ‘Bersihkan Pilihanraya!’ (Clean up the elections) and ‘Daulat Tuanku!’ (Hail the King).
After the initial attempts by the police to disperse the crowd with water cannons blasts failed, the unmistakable thump of tear gas canisters being fired was heard. What is perhaps noteworthy is the fact that the use of tear gas started shortly after segments of the PKR crowd started chanting ‘Reformasi’, referring to the Anwar Ibrahim-led movement in 1998.
The maelstrom that followed saw protestors frantically running in all directions to avoid the effects of the tear gas, with some taking refuge at a nearby Hindu temple. As the police advanced – clearly with the attention to detain as many as they could – I was forced to make short sprints to hide behind cars and in abandoned shophouses in the back alleys of Jalan Pudu Lama.
While Prime Minister Najib Razak on Sunday claimed that the police had used ‘minimum force on demonstrators’, this was hardly the case from what I witnessed along Jalan Pudu Lama. Policemen chased after unarmed protestors clad in the symbolic yellow of the Bersih 2.0 movement, and others who were draped in the Malaysian flag. On at least one instance, I saw a policeman use his baton to subdue an unarmed protestor trying to evade arrest.
As I spent hours on the Kuala Lumpur streets taking in the sights and sounds of the first street demonstration I had ever attended, I met and spoke with several Malaysians, all of whom did not express a tinge of regret for coming out to protest. This despite having to brave the torment of repeated tear gas attacks and the possibility of getting arrested.
Mr Thomas Seow, 52, said the diversity of the crowd at the various protest sites in Kuala Lumpur signified a shift in the country’s political landscape.
“People used to say that the Chinese don’t care about politics in this country, all we care about is making money. You just look here, how many Chinese have come out to support (the Bersih 2.0 movement),” he said pointing towards the supporters of the DAP – which has strong support from urban Chinese in the country.
Mr Asif Abbasi, 43, had brought his 10-year-old son to witness the protest at Puduraya, despite being aware that there was a high likelihood of tear gas being used. “I want him to see for himself what is happening in this country. Things must change, we cannot let his generation suffer under their (Barisan Nasional) rule, like we did,” said Mr Abbasi, who is of Pakistani descent.
The protests were not just for the hardcore political animals in Malaysia. There were others like 36-year-old factory worker K Murugesu, who said he was disillusioned with the corruption and scandals in Malaysian politics, but turned up to show his support for Datuk Ambiga Sreenevesan, the chairperson of the movement.
Speaking in Tamil, he said he admired her courage and dedication to the Bersih 2.0 cause, despite facing death threats and severe criticism in the mainstream media.
For the rakyat, by the rakyat
By any measure, the Bersih 2.0 protests on Saturday were a resounding success for its organisers.
They have had to face death, bomb and gang-rape threats. There were many labels put on them by the Najib administration and the state-controlled media: communist subversives, anti-Islamists and enemies of the state.
Yet they managed to galvanise 50,000 Malaysians – from the skull capped Muslims from the Kelantan heartlands, the Dayaks from Sarawak, and the KL urbanites – into coming together for a common cause.
The road ahead for the movement is fraught with obstacles. It remains a banned entity, and many of its constituent groups will soon be investigated by the authorities for participating in the street protests. The harassment from the establishment and radical groups like Perkasa will not stop.
But ideas and ideals can never be stopped by despotic actions, as one Thomas Chai pointed out in a direct tweet to the Prime Minister: “Beneath this YELLOW there is an idea, Mr Najib, and ideas are bulletproof.”
At the end of it, Bersih 2.0 is about the people – not political parties or politicians or even the ever valiant Datuk Ambiga. I am convinced that the protestors were well aware of this. Among the cacophony of chants heard in Kuala Lumpur on 9 July 2011, the loudest was ‘Hidup Rakyat!’. Long live the People.
Bhavan is a Singapore citizen and a journalism undergraduate from the Nanyang Technological University. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the views of any organisation he may be affiliated with.