Bersih 2.0: A Life-Defining Moment

I hadn’t said anything or thought too much about Bersih in the build up towards it. Near complete silence, if I remember correctly. Everything changed at about 5pm on Friday evening. I read some comments our PM had made, I can barely remember what, and I just walk downstairs and ask mum what the plan is. It wasn’t a moment where I just made a decision to join in. It’s as though my subconscious had been preparing me since… always.

Friday night is a haze of movement. We take trains into the city, and check into a hotel near the stadium. No heavy police presence, but an IO (Investigating Officer) car is parked outside.

At our roadside stall dinner, we exchange stories: mum tells us about May 1969, and we talk about our upbringings. We cross the road to the stadium, under the glow of a police helicopter light. We walk across the expanse of the carpark. We look at the stadium in its ghostly silhouette. We talk more about the past.

Sitting in our room surveying our Twitter feeds, the news that Swiss Garden is being checked gets us worried. We hide our anti tear-gas sodium bicarbonate in the air-vents in the ceiling, and we are not checked. We wait for friends to come, some from as far as Johor, braving the roadblocks. In the wee hours, via the back roads into KL, they arrive.

In the morning, we waited as more friends came into the city by public transport to our hotel room. We pack homemade bubble solution and makeshift wands with water-bottle plastic rings. Some of us walk down and back up, with news of the situation on the street.

We walk past Masjid al-Bukhary and all the way to behind Stadium Merdeka itself. Scattered groups of people are afraid to look each other in the eye, lest they are not on the same side. Ladies in white shirts and suits that we’d come to recognise as lawyers stand waiting. We blow bubbles.

I walk across the little road that leads into the stadium compound, stop mid-way, and look at the people sitting on the opposite sidewalk. I turn back to see barbed wire, and blue-suits staring back at me. I stand right in the middle of that road a long while. I feel like I am in no man’s land. The tension is palpable.

At about 2pm, it begins to rain lightly. We peer down at a small woman who says that ‘a reputable source’ had told her KL Sentral is our destination. I vaguely recognise her from TV and the papers, but it didn’t matter who she was. We begin to walk out towards Chinatown when we see them. A huge yellow kerchief-waving, cheering, jubilant crowd. We melted into them, and track back into my ‘impasse’ road into the stadium compound. The first chant rises into the air: “Hidup — Hidup, Hidup Rakyat!” This is the first I hear it said out loud.

Amidst the cheering, I quietly realise that this crowd didn’t push into me, elbow me, and didn’t try to cop a feel. We were doing our thing, because we wanted to. I think there’s something the government needs to realise about the people who walked. I speak for myself, but I am sure many will agree with me. We are not rock stars. We aren’t even being self-righteous. We are just speaking out about what we need, and we wanted to be together to do it. Just as the government has its police force, its Putrajaya, its golf meetings, its kenduri-kenduri, we want to be together. At least 2,000 people are standing in the rain as the organisers of Bersih walk forward through the crowd to negotiate entry. We are drenched. When we clap our hands, droplets of water fly through the air.

About 15 minutes later, sitting on someone’s shoulders, a grey haired and bearded individual said we’d ‘done what we came to do’ and that now we would go to Central Market. We slowly turn around and walk down Jalan Hang Jebat towards Chinatown, but this time… there are reporters everywhere, and people are waving and cheering us on from both sides. We shout “De-mo-kra-si!” cheerfully. We are not frowning or hurling deadly insults at the government. Granted, there are shouts of “Hancur BN”, but many of us don’t chant along to that. We smile inquiringly at that section of the group — they look back with no hostility — and
we walk on with them. We know it is apolitical.

We try to turn left when we come in view of the Pasar Seni LRT so we could go across the road to Central Market, but there is no access there. Barbed wire and such. So we walk further. Bank staff peer out of their doors. Some smile. People in the upstairs living quarters open their windows; so curious they are. Some wave. These narrow streets are filled with people, walking along. No rush. We are in no way beserkers.

Then we saw it. Smoke bouncing off the walls. A canister flies into a food stall right next to a little corner-street bar. My skin and eyes burn. I pull a towel out of my bag and wipe my eyes. My reflex is to gulp in air. Big mistake. I simply can’t believe how much it hurts. I think, incredulously, “This isn’t right. This seems more like a sadistic punishment than a mere disperser of crowds… Why does it hurt this badly?”

I slowly begin to suffocate. Knowing I can’t walk forward with the rest of the crowd, I leave my mum behind in the little bar. I walk out into the open road, feeling nauseous and breathless. Being a former asthmatic, I know the latter sensation well. My vision fizzes. I stumble onto the road divider, calming myself down. My mum is a tough one. She’d be fine.

It is a life-defining moment. Not nearly as dramatic as you think it might be, but when you know why you are in a situation like this, something in the very core of you solidifies. You know that same thing that some freedom-fighters know: They can’t change me. They can’t change my dreams. They can’t change my desires. They can try to scare us. Heck, they may even succeed. Fear can pass through me. I will remain. They can’t transform reality: we want a country that we are proud to live in.

We find each other in the streets, mum joins us. We wait behind Central Market. An aunty who was sitting down tells us, Anwar and his aide are hurt. Ambiga and top-tier Bersih people have been taken. A gentleman says we’re going to KLCC. We walk towards Jalan Ampang. The skies brighten up and I’m deeply glad we’re not in enclosed roads anymore.

A band of people with a guitar come up behind us, and we sing Rasa Sayang and Geylang Si Paku Geylang. I am tickled at comments that the former is Indonesian. Hundreds who are within earshot join in. Not too shabby for an impromptu session. At the Concorde intersection of Jalan Ampang, a man in a black tshirt with a red arm-band ushered us across. I was puzzled by this. Was this not one of them Patriot-folk? [Note: Have since learnt that he was Unit Amal]

Walking on, I realised how exhausted I was. Motorcycles honked, and policemen watched. As we passed Zouk and Hotel Maya, I looked into the eyes of the police officers. I could not see hatred, or conviction that the walk was wrong. They didn’t even look indifferent. They looked very mildly interested. You may accuse me of reading too much into things, but I saw a pakcik (in a red button-up shirt) walk up to them and shake their hands. They broke out into smiles. [Note: I now realise that the pakcik was probably from Unit Amal, too]

We reach KLCC. Birds glide above and the trees wave in the wind. The sun is out, the sky is cloudless. The air is tinged with dampness. The streets are FULL of people. I see Chua Jui Meng and some other yellow t-shirts talking to the crowd. We sit down on the asphalt, our wet clothes slowly drying off. We share bananas and drink what little water we have left. I take out my towels and dry them next to me. Then, I hear shouts.

“FRU! FRU!”

People start scrambling. Ladies pull their kids to the sidewalks and people run towards Avenue K, but there they are, the riot police. We are all so exhausted at this point. We admit that we should have something to eat now so we hurry up the sparsely populated KLCC pavement. We see policemen and the media standing close together, so we walk in small clusters, wearily making our way towards the Philharmonic entrance, silently hoping everyone behind us is getting out of there.

I steal a glance at the cluster of media and policemen again and, suddenly, the blue suit points a finger, his eyes bulging, his voice raised triumphantly: “Tu dia!” To our horror, he is pointing at L, our friend who walking with another two female friends. I freeze, wondering whether or not to run towards L.

In that flash of time, the policeman and a gaggle of media has reached L, and the policeman has stuck a hand into his pocket. The cameras are up and out. Pulling out a yellow kerchief that my friend had picked up from the street, the policeman allows a photo-opportunity before cuffing him, and walking him out. I try to quell my anger because, my friend is the only male with us who is Indian in descent. I know it is possible he has been targeted.

I call to the girls to join us on the other sidewalk. With shaking hands, I extract my phone, and call friends to get his IC number. Policemen begin to look at us from behind the metal barricades. A friend informs me that it’s Jinjang L’s being taken to. I can barely retrieve the pre-saved Legal Aid Counsel numbers on my touchscreen phone or get Jinjang spelled correctly due to terrible AutoSpell options. I know now that it’s 4.40 pm.

We found a tiny entrance in the corner, and go up to the food court. My diabetic mum needs something to eat, so I settle with fast food. This part is a daze to me, so I end the chronological tale here. Later that evening, at 9.40pm, L uses his one phone call to tell me that they are taking his statement soon. Some friends are at Jinjang, waiting. I call L’s cellphone at 11.20pm and he says he is literally just coming out. I hear another friend’s voice joining his on the phone and put the call down.

I fall asleep reading #bersihstories on Twitter.


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Ashvina is a mad melange of many things. She spends her time trying to immerse people the wonder and magic of discovering their own abilities, skills and passions. To say that she is an educator, is partially true, but really, she's just someone who floundered her way about a Law degree - and found her way through helping people to understand their world. She tries and sometimes succeeds in being an artist, musician, designer, talent scout, student advisor, and curator of long lists. Ashvina tweets at @ashvina (early bird gets the first-name username!). She writes and shares her visual finds at Glowdown (http://glowdown.wordpress.com) – and proudly does interesting things with a grassroots-based social enterprise, and her very own fort*log (http://www.facebook.com/thedepartmentofcuriosity).

Posted on 15 July 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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One Response to Bersih 2.0: A Life-Defining Moment

  1. Noah Nazim

    Hey Ash! I just want to say: this is such a good write-up. What an amazing day we had.

    I'm working on my own write-up about the experience and your account of events has been really useful as a point of reference, I have to say.