From Malaysia: An Eyewitness Account of Bersih Protests
May 2, 2012
The roads leading to the Kuala Lumpur’s Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) were jammed with people instead of cars on Saturday, April 28. Easily tens of thousands, though later estimates put the total figure somewhere between 200 to 300,000 (depending on the source), dressed in yellow t-shirts (the color of the Bersih movement for free and fair elections) and green (the color of the newer environmental movement protesting the building of an Australian rare earth plant in Kuantan, Pahang). In our group of eight, I was the only one who had been to a Bersih rally before.
Like last year, I depended on my mobile phone for updates to keep track of the latest developments. One hour before the scheduled start, my friends posted reports confirming that it was still safe to take the Light Rail Transit (LRT). My colleague, Amir, had called earlier to check in; he was joining the early crowds who had started gathering in Kuala Lumpur before 9 am.
New technology and social media played a transformative role in bringing the Bersih movement’s call for electoral reform to the attention of the masses. What a difference four years made: from 2007 when the first Bersih was held, and 2011 when Bersih 2.0 was mooted by the government. Widespread adoption of smartphones, expanded mobile broadband, and applications that make it easier to share updates online, have enabled those who attended last year’s rally to provide hard-to-deny evidence of culpability on the part of the establishment in its aggressive response to the rally goers. And it was with these tools again that Bersih 3.0 was organized, from reposts of the map of pre-rally points, to pdfs of what to do and who to call if tear gas or water cannons are used, or if police arrests have been made. Bersih 3.0 is arguably the biggest grassroots rally held in Malaysian history, and that doesn’t account for the ones that were held in 10 other states in Malaysia, or the other expatriate Malaysian-organised events in 85 locations in over 30 countries worldwide, bringing together Malaysians of every ethnicity, age group, and economic class.
During the protests, we huddled under our umbrellas in the blazing sun, in an atmosphere that suited a carnival rather than a street protest. Amir had by then moved as close to the front as he could, in view of the stern-looking policemen and the plastic barricades and razor wire. It seemed everyone was holding up a phone or a camera or digital video recorder. However, we later realized that mobile phone jammers were operating in full force, creating a dead zone of connectivity, with nothing coming in or going out from the main protest site.
I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that my calls and texts to Amir and my friend who was attending the Bersih rally in Newcastle, UK failed. At irregular intervals, chants and cheers passed through the crowd. At several points, the crowd parted, first for the police in their vans, then for PKR Deputy President Azmin Ali and other opposition leaders. If there were any speeches made, as close as I was to the Dataran, I could not hear them – the crowd drowned out voices from the front, and communication from the front to the rest of us was poor.
Ambiga Sreenevasan, the face of the Bersih movement, asked everyone to disperse after calling the rally a success at around 2.30 pm. Rumors would later fly that it was because she didn’t want to give the opportunity for Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto opposition leader, to steal the thunder of the people. Regardless, that call was not heard by most, not when mobile connection was cut and she only had a small PA system to depend on. The only reason why my group began to move back toward the LRT station nearby was because we wanted to hop on the train to get a bird’s eye view of the masses from the elevated tracks.
We were at the turnstile, tokens and pass cards in hand, when we heard the first wave of frantic human voices. We saw people who previously were milling around or sitting down peacefully, running and coughing, covering their eyes. Even at a distance, the sting of the gas was still potent. In between the heads of other onlookers, I could see a straight line of police officer boots through the glass, and canisters of tear gas shot periodically into the crowd. Down below, some rushed forward to lob those canisters back to the police.
It is perhaps comforting that the number of arrests made this year (about 388 arrests, and none before the rally took place) were significantly less than last year’s, but not when videos of police brutality and eyewitness accounts (which included members of the press) were numerous and shared widely online. The police response in Kuala Lumpur stands in stark contrast with the other rallies in Ipoh, Malacca, Penang, Kuching, or Kota Kinabalu, among others, which ended peacefully. Once again, social media and the collective reporting of online Malaysians came to the fore to present live, accurate accounts of the event, in juxtaposition with the mainstream media coverage which seemed to echo the party line.
In a way, this is the fruit of the ruling party’s success in developing the nation in its 50-odd years at the helm. A literate populace, coupled with a liberal adoption of technology has resulted in a situation where it was plain to see the disconnect between the official message and the conversation on the ground. In the aftermath of the rally, Prime Minister Najib Razak went on a meet-and greet and visited the injured in the hospitals. But how can trust be engendered when all it takes is a few minutes of screen capping the articles as written on Malaysiakini (independent online news site) and juxtaposing them directly against those written by Bernama (government-run agency), with one outlet claiming that the injured are victims of police brutality and the other attributing the injuries to the rally goers?
I had escaped the brunt of it, but Amir was stuck in the smaller lanes with nowhere to move at one point, with the Federal Reserve Unit pushing people away with the water cannons on one end, and tear gas waiting on the other. But in his account, I hear the echoes of other stories, of kindness shown by strangers in protecting their fellow Malaysians from harm as best as they can, by giving away water or saline to rinse away the tear gas, or helping them up or down various fences, pipes, and enclosures. This, more than any slogan, more than any government campaign, is the Malaysia that we know and are a part of: diverse and steadfast, and when push comes to shove, will always be ready to lend a hand. We are not divided by our differences, but united in our adversity.
Nurshafenath Shaharuddin is a program officer and Amir Shariff a senior program officer, both in The Asia Foundation’s Malaysia office. They can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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