Bersih: Once Again, I Was There

My eye-witness account of April 28th, 2012 in Kuala Lumpur — the day Malaysians proved once more that peace-makers will always triumph over war-mongers.

Photo by Ahmad Azrai

Once again, the events and situations that led to the rally of July 9th, 2011 forced our hand. A simple plea for free and fair elections has been ignored and treated as light fluff. And once again, a large chunk of the people of Malaysia proved that they would not stand for it — by sitting down in protest.

Once again, I started my day.

Once again, the first thing I did before leaving the house was to feed my two cats Enjin Karat and Wirawati, hugging and kissing them tightly as if I would never see them again should anything go wrong. I got on the LRT to get into the city centre, which was surrounded by selective roadblocks, and stopped at Ampang Park. Again I talked to the security guards who have known me for years, with whom I could always talk to even if our opinions differed on important and fundamental issues, and discovered that they were all on emergency standby for 36 hours. Thankfully, there were no incidents whatsoever, even though Malaysians of every stripe had gathered around the agreed venue of Dataran Merdeka (“Merdeka Square”, for all those readers who do not read Bahasa Malaysia; literally “Square of Independence”) — which had been barred from the general public by the police via the courts — at 2pm on this date.

Once again, I walked.

Once again, I tried to make my way to as near as possible to the main site. And again, I saw people — both young and old — turn out in droves to stand up for their rights. And when I arrived at Masjid Jamek — a literal stone’s throw away from the Dataran — I saw again pockets of agitators deliberately raising a ruckus, shouting insults against the prime minister and the mainstream ruling coalition, and adding religious chants and prayers to legitimise their apparent hatred.

Once again, sadly, there were people who blindly went along with it.

But once again, more people proved to be more level-headed than the Malaysian authorities suspected. Because as soon as the agitators moved on down the line, the rest of the crowd was calm, collected and disciplined. By my count, that section of Kuala Lumpur held at least 25,000 people at a glance — which makes the measured silence of their vigil even more amazing.

Once again, I made my way to Ground Zero.

Once again, there was an immense crush of people to get through — but even though I was carrying my smartphone and my tablet computer with me, I did not fear having my pocket picked, because anyone who was on the ground could see and sense that the people were there for the simple purpose of justice.

Once again, love for the nation ruled the day.

Once again, there were many moments when the crowd would spontaneously sing the national anthem Negaraku (“My Country”). I was there, and I stopped and proudly sang aloud with everyone. It was only after I finished that I realised I was standing in front of the police blockade: plastic barrier walls and barbed wire, and I noticed that a few of the officers were watching me, apparently surprised that this bald and scruffy man in front of them not only sang the anthem in tune and in key, but with the correct lyrics as well.

Once again, I saw a stoic wall of officers.

Once again, I tried to engage with them, but came up against those whose pervading motto could only have been “I was only obeying orders” — a sad, immature attitude of people not willing to be responsible for something in their lives. Immediately, I saw that there was some rubbish strewn on the ground near the blockade — so close, and yet so far from the Dataran — so I picked up the trash and begged the crowd for a plastic bag to contain it. A kindly soul gave it to me, and I wrapped it up and politely asked the police to help place it in the trash bins which were behind them.

Once again, they disappointed me.

Once again, they attempted to insult my intelligence by saying that I should leave it ON THE BARRIER. Politely, I said that that would be irresponsible of me, as it would merely make the trash even more difficult to dispose of, and therefore would defeat the purpose of my request. Stubbornly, they either repeated their statement or kept a stony silence. In the end, it was a brother journalist on the other side of the barricade who helped me dispose of it.

Once again, I was witness to attempted sneakiness.

Once again, some members of the police attempted to “escape” notice, but it was not enough for the eagle eyes of one citizen, who spotted a policeman in uniform but with a blank patch where his name should have been — which is a clear violation of the law, and even more obvious in that he was the only one without a name. The citizen was led away by the Bersih organisers, who did not wish to provoke the police. But I saw the deputy chief inspector quietly but curtly tell off the officer, who tried to sneak away nonchalantly — and failed as I actually saw it happen in front of my own eyes.

Once again, I found many of my friends with me.

Once again, we all rejoiced in seeing friends who stood for the same things that you did. But this day was a miraculous day — because everyone there was a friend and brother to each other. At that point, I had made it my mission to clear the area of as much rubbish as I could, and my friends diligently helped me. It got noticed by the crowd, and I saw several of them being shamed by the display of simple civic-mindedness that they saw.

But some things were new events, not those which happened once again.

What was new was the fact that I was well-prepared, having been tear-gassed twice the last time around. I had packed bottles of drinking water, two sets of goggles, my half-face paint filter gas mask, three smaller masks, a towel, a change of clothes and spectacles, and a packet of salt. I had gotten to the venue by 12noon — and by 1.40pm, I had given the extra masks, water and set of goggles to various people around me, both friends and strangers alike. I made my way backwards to get more water and loads of rubbish disposal bags, and ended up distributing those too to total strangers — the request to help clear the area of rubbish being the only form of payment I required.

What was new was that I also brought with me the walking stick of my late maternal grandfather — whose grandmother, along with my late maternal grandmother’s mother, were sisters of Onn Jaafar, the man who established UMNO (“United Malays National Organisation”), the main mainstream political party in 1946. My grandfather passed away the month before, and he was the last living member of the original party members. Thus, I brought the walking stick along to symbolically bring the history of the past with the current history that I was living and am witness too.

What was new was that I took a stance against certain agitations that could have gotten out of hand. Somehow, during the noon, someone had produced a gigantic green beach ball and was tossing it into the crowd in a spirit of fun. As there were some police officers passing nearby, some people tried to keep hitting them with it. Without hesitating, I shouted: “HEY! Do not hit these officers! You may not agree with them, but they are only doing their duty, and THEY ARE NOT HURTING YOU! Do NOT give them an excuse to arrest you! Remember, we are all here for a reason — and that reason is electoral justice!” Never have I seen my words acted upon with such alacrity; the ball immediately disappeared to the back, and the crowd looked at me with stunned silence. A passing man actually patted my shoulder and said: “Well done; that needed to be said.”

What was also new was that I was in much poorer health than the last time, which made me more cautious and more observant of happenings — which is why when the trucks were getting into position and the police at the barricade had retreated, I knew that it was only a matter of time. I made sure my friends wore the equipment I gave them, and I warned everyone around me who would listen what to do if they got gassed: to cover their eyes, nose and mouth to mitigate the effects. The fact that I was already goggled and having my gas mask dangling around my neck made them take notice — so much so that many took my photo, which I allowed. I then moved away to two streets away — which is why I was able to avoid being sprayed by chemical water and tear-gassed, which happened as the crowd was DISPERSING. Unfortunately, the wind carried the residue over to where I was, and it was still harmful, forcing me to seek sanctuary in a nearby restaurant, where I ended up being trapped for about two hours. Thanks to my foresight in preparations and quick thinking, the pain was only slight, and thankfully nowhere near as agonising as a full attack.

But once again, us Malaysians made our point.

Once again, we proved to be peaceful and we won, because by banning the Square and not the surrounding area, it meant Malaysians SURROUNDED the square — which meant that MORE people than could have actually fit into the Dataran were there. Although the authorities will downplay the numbers as usual, it has been estimated that 100,000 people were around the Dataran — a credible and feasible number, given the amount of aerial photos of the surrounding area available online now. And because people had managed to sit down for hours BEFORE 2pm, as well as for almost an hour after the deadline, it meant that the whole point of the exercise had been made; Malaysians had won without picking a fight at all.

Once again, mistakes were made by the government and the police.

Once again, they proved to be out of touch with reality. The home minister (who, I am sad to say is an actual relative of mine) washed his hands of the whole incident, and had the audacity to claim that the police acted with restraint — when the world’s media organisations have already reported on the brutality. The Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was in Sarawak, in Borneo 977km away from the seat of the action — and he had refused to say anything about the issue. His mishandling of last year’s event created a PR disaster for him, with subtle criticism from no less a personage than Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, who wore yellow (the colour of Bersih) when Najib paid her a visit. Well, I shall say this to the prime minister as well as my less than illustrious uncle: the world has seen everything, with no less than 85 cities worldwide hosting Bersih gatherings too. Every single one of them, and all sister rallies in other Malaysian cities, went off without chaos nor casualties. It only happened in Kuala Lumpur — which means that YOU are ultimately responsible.

Once again, we had disappointments.

Once again, there were many Malaysians who actively disliked the efforts, criticising those who went to the rally of rocking the boat, of causing mischief, of being stupid. I shall leave it to the words uttered by my wonderful friend Farah Fahmy to berate them:

“I know demonstrations can be an inconvenience to a lot of people, but seriously, do we supress the voice of the minority just because it’s inconvenient or just because we don’t agree with them? If that’s our attitude then scrap the elections and just declare martial law, and we can be just like another tinpot 3rd world dictatorship, forget Vision 2020 and all that stuff, jadik aje macam China!!!”

You tell ‘em, Farah. (Farah has since written an article about it.)

Once again, the mainstream media — which happens to be owned by the mainstream government — whitewashed the events during the broadcasts on the day itself. And once again, my friends and I expect the mainstream newspapers to play along as well, further disgracing the reputation of journalists and journalism in Malaysia — which infuriates me to no end, seeing as I am a journalist, and a responsible one too.

But once again, I am exhilarated though exhausted. More Malaysians turned up than ever before, and proved that they are a lot smarter and stronger than the authorities dared believe. You can bribe some locals, and you can bully us all with violence — but you can never make us afraid of you any more.

Once again, I was there.

And once again, I am triumphant.

Ahmad Azrai was not afraid, and was not petrified. Ahmad Azrai, shared his Bersih 2.0 experience with the very popular piece “I Was There“.

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Ahmad Azrai grew strong and learned how to carry on.

Posted on 30 April 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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4 Responses to Bersih: Once Again, I Was There

  1. Kenneth Lee

    Eighty Thousand Strong! & all with their hands out for alms…Yes…we know who you people are…See…(ie. making others pay off your college loans for you people); think about it some of the time…OK-KLM

  2. C++

    Dear Ahmad Azrai … your's photo at Bersih 3.0 requesting plastic bag from Bersih 3.0 participant have been uploaded on my blog. Hope you can get it for you own perusal. Good to know you by the way…

    C++
    CipanTapirTenuk.Blogspot

  3. lwl

    Thank you sir. Because of you and the others that were there at Bersih 2.0, it made it possible for all of us who attended Bersih 3.0 for the first time. I have close to zero interests in politics but it was important enough to stand up and be counted at Bersih 3.0 and it was all thanks to people like yourself.

  4. Nana

    very nice