The rally tourists. Fahri: "I look like some spaz here man!" | Photo by HR Dipendra

Marcus van Geyzel records what he personally witnessed at Bersih 3.0.

There are so many stories and perspectives from Bersih 3.0 on 28 April 2012. Many first-hand accounts have already been published online, and I’m sure the coming days and weeks will see many more articles and analysis being churned out as well. I was there, and very much at the heart of the incident that has thrown up much speculation – that barrier breach. Well, I was close, but not close enough – as you will see.

As I was trying to process my thoughts and decide what to write about Bersih, Sivin Kit suggested that I just do a factual account of what I experienced that day, and leave the analysis for later. I thought that was a good idea, and am doing so with this post. There is minimal analysis here, and no “spin” – everything that is written here I witnessed and felt personally. I have written what I experienced, felt, and thought at the time, before all the spin and armchair commentators flooded my Twitter timeline with their views.

I clearly point out instances where what I’ve written is based on what I was told by others; I have kept these to a minimum.

It is long, and perhaps a bit dry, as it is a record so I will not forget what happened.

This then, is my experience of Bersih 3.0.

Two LoyarBurokkers, rempit style

We had planned our transportation arrangements a couple of days before. I already knew I had to attend my daughter’s first-ever sports day that morning – which the preschool very kindly rescheduled to an hour earlier. That went well enough by the way, she got a nice trophy for taking first prize in the team event, and we came in second in the parent-child event too!

Anyway, me and fellow LoyarBurokker Fahri Azzat decided that the best way to get into KL without having the hassle of potential roadblocks and traffic jams would be to ride in on his kapchai. Rempit style baby! Fahri picked me up from the TTDI mosque at around 10.45am. We discussed the official meeting points and decided that it would be best to try to get to Central Market.

Riding down the Sprint highway with minimal traffic, the cool breeze and smell of fresh-ish air made me optimistic that, maybe, today would turn out well after all. The perfect assembly maybe? We were optimistic.

Our ride in. Poor girl almost didn't make it. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

When we reached the flyover entrance to Jalan Parlimen, there was a roadblock. A rotund (do they come in any other shape?) traffic policeman had just turned away a car as we approached, and turned away a motorbike when we stopped. Fahri had to call him a couple of times before he deigned to look over. “Bang, nak pergi Lake Club bang.” (Bro, we’re going to Lake Club bro) The policeman didn’t look too impressed. Two fellas on a kapchai – Lake Club? But he waved us in with an expression that said “whatever lah, I really can’t be bothered.”

So we continued up Jalan Parlimen and down Jalan Tembusu and Jalan Lembah, then Jalan Perdana until we got to Masjid Negara. Along the way, there were random groups of twos or threes walking along – some in yellow t-shirts, some not. We were excited, but the excitement was too much for the ol kapchai, and its back tyre suddenly sprung a leak. As we approached Masjid Negara on a now wobbly kapchai, there were several police trucks and many, many police officers. We squeezed through, rempit style, and parked the bike on the pavement along many others.

Masjid Negara – breaking into our own city

There was already a big crowd at Masjid Negara. People were sitting around waiting for the time to make their way to Dataran. This was one of the pre-designated gathering points. We kept to our earlier decision to make our way to Central Market, and walked.

As we made our way up Jalan Kinabalu and approached the turn-off, we noticed that it was barricaded with plastic red-and-white barriers, as well as razor wire. I really despised the sight of razor wire, having seen photos the night before of razor wire being used to barricade Dataran Merdeka as well. Why are we being kept out of our own city? And didn’t the authorities say that only Dataran would be sealed off? What’s with the roadblocks all over the place? This was obviously contradictory to the “order” obtained, as well as the earlier statements.

Anyway, hardly surprising.

We crossed Jalan Kinabalu – suicidal under normal circumstances, but there was obviously hardly any traffic at the time – and walked towards Dayabumi. Jalan Sultan Hishammuddin was also sealed off – more barricades and razor wire. We then tried to get into the underground carpark, but that was chained off. Anyway, just step over the chain lah – which attracted a security guard, who explained that, sorry, he was under instructions not to allow anyone in. But we just want to walk through we said, but he explained that there was no point as the back exit was sealed off anyway. He also turned away a postman who wanted to get to the post office!

We made our way down Jalan Tugu, hoping to find another way, and hoping that we wouldn’t have to go all the way to the Kinabalu roundabout and back. We met several other groups and individuals along the way, all trying to find a way in. We exchanged information about which roads were blocked off. We reflected on how ridiculous it was, all of us on foot, having to “break in” to our own city, denied by razor wire. I would have felt deeply saddened, if I wasn’t feeling knackered from walking aimlessly in the heat.

We met a 40-something year old Chinese man also trying to find a way in. We told him that Dayabumi was sealed off, for which he thanked us for saving him the walk into a dead-end. “I’m here not because of politics you know. I’m here for the next generation. No choice lah. Elections must be fair. Cannot keep on like this, no change. I don’t have any children, but am doing this for my nephews and nieces. I told them, you know, I’m going to walk for you. I don’t want them to have to suffer the same thing. Very unfair. No choice lah, for next generation. But it’s okay lah, I don’t mind. People organise something like this, we must support.”

He told us that he saw some people climbing through a hole in the fence leading to the railway tracks earlier, and that we might want to consider that. We thanked him, but both me and Fahri decided there was no way we would be walking across the railway tracks. “Don’t wanna be making the morning papers for the wrong reasons man,” he said.

We met another group, of five Malay men. They were checking out the fence along the railway tracks. They said they knew of the hole further up, but that when they got in they couldn’t find another hole on the other side so it was quite pointless. We told them of the dead-ends that we had come across, and moved on.

So we resigned ourselves to having to take the long way in – all the way to Kinabalu roundabout and back, and hoped that it would not be blocked off. We came across another group, two women and two men, who were heading up towards Masjid Negara as they had given up on making it into town on their own. We wished each other luck and carried on.

Suddenly, I noticed that there was a massive pedestrian bridge above us.

Me: “Eh Fahri, you think we can get into that bridge?”

Fahri: “Maybe. Let’s try only lah.”

We accessed it through a multi-storey carpark, climbing up about two floors. “JyeaH!” But wait, the bloody grill was closed and locked. So close, yet so far. We could see people walking around further into, via the train station and down the other side. Frustrating!

We decided to channel Lord Bobo’s monkey powers and climb around the side of the grill – sharp metal rods and plastic barbed wire notwithstanding. Momentarily hanging two floors above the road, we made it across, and exited onto Jalan Tun Sambanthan.

We were in.

Central Market

Making our way across the bridge towards Central Market, we were already walking amongst groups of people. And there were already many, many people gathered around and in the Central Market carpark. It was obvious that the turnout was going to be impressive. There were also many stalls selling food and drink. I saw some yellow balloons floating around above the crowd; the atmosphere was fun and festive.

Fahri decided he needed to get his kolomee fix, and we needed to head to Petaling Street. It was still well before 2 pm anyway, so off we went.

Petaling Street – makan time

The streets leading up to Petaling Street were bustling with activity. All along the way, stalls and coffeeshops were fully operational, and packed.

We got to Koon Kee, the Azzat-meister’s traditional kolomee destination, and he queued up to makan. I decided to skip the food and take a walk all the way up to Petaling Street and the surrounding areas.

Fahri queueing for kolo mee. Halal ke ni? | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

The crowd was really big in this area, and went on for as long as I could see. There were some anti-Lynas banners, and a man with a loudhailer was leading a chant of “Bersih! Bersih!”. I spotted a 70-something year old woman in what looked like yellow pyjamas, with her hands in the air joining in the shouts of “Bersih! Bersih!”.

One guy tried to start up a chant of “Re-for-ma-si!” but it was not taken up by the crowd. He looked around sheepishly and pretended to take a call on his mobile phone.

I bought a 100 Plus from a roadside stall, nice and ice-cold. Next to me was an elderly Malay man struggling to find change in his pockets for a drink; I told him “Takpe pakcik, saya belanja,” (It’s alright uncle, my treat) to which he grinned and said “Hidup Rakyat!” (Long Live the People!). I cheekily asked the young man selling the drinks whether his business was badly affected by Bersih, as ignorantly claimed by many critics. He looked at in mock shock, and smilingly said: “Bang, saya rasa kalau satu bulan biasa jual pun tak boleh jual macam ni lah. Dah nak habis dah! Aku mintak member aku pi bawak stock lagi,” (Bro, I think I wouldn’t be able to sell this much even in a whole month in normal circumstances. I’m running out! I’ve already asked my friend to go and get some more stock) and right on cue another fella with a trolley-full of canned drinks packed into a styrofoam box arrived, breathing heavily but smiling.

The HS Lee - Petaling Street area. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

I got back to Koon Kee, and Fahri still wasn’t done – I could see him slumped over his food. I bought another herbal drink to pass the time, and support those who opened their stalls. This one was run by a Chinese lady. I noted that the prices being charged by all the vendors were quite reasonable – if it was me I may have been tempted to jack up the prices! I mentioned this to her, and she said “Nolah, we don’t want to cheat people. We also support Bersih. It’s for all of us right?”

When Fahri was finished (“Sorrylah bro, it was so damn good that I had a second bowl!”) we made our way back to Central Market.

Back to Central Market, and the Bar Council

The crowd at Central Market had swelled even more in our absence. Fahri climbed up a lamp-post to get a slightly-higher angle on his shots.

Fahri: “It’s like friggin Malaysia Day Carnival or something out here man!”

I agreed, it was beautiful. Despite the heat from the mid-day sun, everyone was having a genuinely good day out.

Me: “Ya man, most of these fellas would probably not set foot in this part of town again for the rest of the year – if only our actual Merdeka Day celebrations were like this.”

We continued our makan-minum (eat-drink) tour of KL with a couple of drinks from a stall run by a rather cute-looking young Malay girl; I got an orange juice. As we were paying, a man walked by and teasingly said to her: “Mana ada bisnes rugi sebab Bersih. Tak henti-henti orang beli minum kan?” (Loss of business due to Bersih? People are buying your drinks non-stop, right?!)  to which we all laughed.

We walked through the covered pedestrian walkway to the Bar Council, where there was another big crowd gathered. The police had blocked off the road just before the bridge across to Dataran. Many people were taking photos of themselves and the crowds. Fahri observed that the “Malaysian rally tourist pose” was one where you stood with your hands slightly raised, holding a smartphone or a camera. Everyone was having a good time – it was certainly better than what they would have otherwise been doing, which was likely to be hanging out in an air-conditioned shopping mall somewhere.

The Bar Council. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

Next we went up Medan Pasar and Jalan Benteng – Fahri continued his makan tour “Oooh, fishballs!”

There was a big group of 30-40 police officers at the HSBC building, and about 10 police officers crowding around a stall next to the Masjid Jamek LRT station. While Fahri was taking photos of the hungry policemen (“Now this I gotta get a shot of!”) I bumped into Roger Chan, looking spiffy in his suit – part of the Bar Council monitoring team for the day. We exchanged stories about what we’d seen so far, and expressed optimism that things were “looking good”.

In this area we also met Seira Sacha, Brendan Siva, Janet Chai, and Tung Seng. All seemed to be enjoying the atmosphere.

Jalan Tun Perak, at Masjid Jamek Station. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

Masjid Jamek – carnival time

Speaking of atmosphere, the crowd at Masjid Jamek was definitely the most impressive we had come across so far. If not the biggest – the Petaling Street and Central Market crowds were quite big and spread out – it was definitely the noisiest. The cheers of “Bersih! Bersih!” and “Hidup Rakyat!” echoed through the seemingly-narrow Jalan Tun Perak.

Another view of Jalan Tun Perak. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

Balloons and banners were everywhere. Some people were already sitting down on Jalan Tun Perak under the LRT tracks – the crowd was thick, as far as the eye could see towards Dataran Maybank, and all the way up to Jalan Parlimen, as we would later find out. There were all sorts of signs and banners.

Fahri: “It seems everyone with a cause of any kind has come out today man.”

Me: “Next time we must remember to bring that ‘Vote for Lord Bobo’ sign!”

First look at Dataran

We slowly made our way through the thick crowd of people – really slowly – towards Dataran Merdeka. As we reached the Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman junction – which would be a momentous location for us later on – we saw heavy police presence, FRU in a distance, and that damn razor wire. The crowd here was calmer than at Masjid Jamek, and extended far back into Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. I had lost sight of Fahri (damn rally tourist!) so stood around observing people.

Dataran looking towards Jalan TAR. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

There really were people from all walks of life here. A truly Malaysian crowd with all the stereotypes one could imagine (in a good way lah). There were Melayu mat-rempit looking fellas, Indian machas, bespectacled clean-cut Chinese guys, lots and lots of good looking girls in short-shorts and spaghetti straps, women in tudungs, old young and everything in-between. The perfect rally. I even saw a rain-cloud in the distance. The heat was scorching.

The barricades were metal barriers, then those plastic barriers you see on highways, and razor wire. There was a double-file of police officers standing on the other side. (These police officers and the razor wire would later be strangely missing in the pictures and videos of the events at this exact location closer to 3pm.)

Dataran Merdeka. FRU. Police. Razor wire. Heartbreaking. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

As I was standing around, there were suddenly shouts of “bagi laluan!” (make way!) and police officers started filing in through the crowd towards Dataran. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the line was seemingly endless – the stream of police officers (mostly single-file) went on for at least 10-15 minutes. There must have been 100-200 of them. As they walked by, the mood in the crowd was jovial – many shook hands with them, and so did I.

The police officers were a mix of grizzled-looking veterans to obviously rookie cops. I made a point of saying thank you by name (their name-badges were stitched onto their uniforms) to a number of them (“Terima kasih Manan”) – I recall one young man was named “Casper”. I like to think that this would make a difference somehow, and later perhaps they’d be more inclined to show kindness.

Some of the other attendees next to me also teased some of the more stony-faced ones to smile “Kalau senyum mesti hansem bang!” (Bro, if you smile I’m sure you’ll look handsome!). The mood was light, friendly.

While this was going on (as I said, the line was seemingly endless), someone inflated a huge green ball and it was being bounced above the crowd. At some point, some fellas decided it would be funny to keep pushing the ball to land on the line of police officers that was streaming through. A balding, bespectacled individual (an attendee, not a police officer) on the other side of the line sternly shouted at the crowd: “Hey! Do not aggravate the officers! They are just doing their job, and they are not hurting you! Do not give them an excuse to react to you! Remember that we are here today for a reason – electoral justice!” The ball moved away and never came back. (I later found out, via his account published on the blawg, that this guy was Ahmad Azrai, who I’ve communicated with on numerous occasions but never met!)

Further down Tun Perak, looking towards Raja Laut. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

Eventually I located Fahri – I saw him standing around with his arms above his head taking photos of course, and we walked towards Jalan Parlimen.

There, we met more of the Bar Council monitoring team, including Himahlini and HR Dipendra. Dipen offered to take a photo of us. He also expressed optimism that it looked like things would be allowed to happen peacefully. The crowd extended all the way to the roundabout-junction, where several police trucks were parked.

The rally tourists. Fahri: "I look like some spaz here man!" | Photo by HR Dipendra

It was amazing just standing there, looking at the huge crowd of Malaysians that had turned up. And under the blazing hot sun too! And they turned up early! Words don’t suffice.

All of a sudden, the police truck at the end of the road towards Parlimen sounded its bell. Tear gas?! There was a buzz in the crowd as people started to get up and move nervously. I pointed out a couple of guys to Fahri – as soon as the bell rung, they ran to the side of the road, opened their backpacks, and fished out gas masks and goggles.

Me: “Damn, these guys are prepared man!”

Fahri: “Yeah and we’re like a couple of amateurs!”

We also noticed that while we were inching away from the police truck, most people were moving towards it.

Fahri: “Err. I think we’ll just slowly move away, shall we?”

Me: “Yup, no shame in that!”

As we were walking away, we met Danny Lim. We told him about the bell. His response was “Oh really? I’m gonna head there and check it out.” After talking with Danny about what we’d seen, what a peaceful lovely gathering it was, and a great day for photos (damn rally tourists!), we made our way back up Jalan Tun Perak. Obviously no tear gas was fired at the time after all. Perhaps someone accidentally feel asleep on the alarm switch.

Back to Masjid Jamek

Making our way back up Jalan Tun Perak, we stopped for a while at the grilled corridors of the Panggung Bandaraya. A cooling breeze was making its way out through the building. We stopped to look around and take in the scene, and the crowd again. To remember what it looked and felt like.

I suddenly thought of a nice cool iced coffee.

Me: “You know, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to open a high-end cafe say one floor up from here. It would be good for the Bangsar activists. I wouldn’t mind paying RM30 for a coffee to get a good view.”

Fahri: “Yup, I’d pay for that.”

Me: “But it can’t be al-fresco lah, must have properly sealed glass windows so we don’t kena the tear gas.”

Fahri: “Definitely!”

After the quick rest and tokkok session, we squeezed back to Masjid Jamek. The call to prayer was coming through the mosque speakers, and people were making their way in to pray. We went back to Fahri’s fishball stall and had a couple more drinks to continue our minum tour – cendol and something else I can’t recall, I think it was longan (important details dammit!).

We followed that with a stroll along the river – romantic eh? In fact, we were commenting about how they were a lot of couples around, walking hand-in-hand, taking couple-photos. There really was an element of romance in the air. Too bad I was with Fahri (no offence brah!).

I suggested that we try to make our way back to Dataran via a parallel route, to make an approach via Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. It would’ve been impossible to make it back in via Jalan Tun Perak as the crowd was really jam-packed by then.

Masjid India – almost time to walk in

We walked across Jalan Tun Perak, up Jalan Melaka – where we saw policemen randomly lepak-ing in the alleyways, up Jalan Ampang a bit and over the river through Jalan Bunus Satu and found ourselves at Masjid India, where there was another big crowd gathered. The mamak shops in the back alleys were also doing good business – I’d expect that they’d usually be emptier on a Saturday afternoon.

As we approached Masjid India, someone was starting off a speech. I was informed by a short Malay man next to me that the group was about to start walking towards Dataran. Masjid India was one of the official meeting points. The speaker (whom neither me nor Fahri could identify) was talking about Bersih, and how we are fighting for a free and fair election process, which is crucial in any functioning democracy. There was some detail about how even a seemingly small number of “dubious voters” could swing seats that could swing entire states.

Masjid India. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

The crowd was multi-racial, despite it being a mosque – everyone was just a “Malaysian”. As we looked up at the low-cost accommodation, there were many foreign workers crowded around the windows, looking down at the crowd below.

Fahri: “These fellas are probably wondering what the hell these Malaysians are complaining about man, they have it good here!”

That’s probably true, but we always have to strive for better, and for all we know, they could be thinking “Man, I wish we could rally for free and fair elections, or justice, or democracy in our country – I respect what these guys are doing, despite their relative affluence.”

After the speech was over, the Unit Amal volunteers made a corridor through the crowd, and the speaker announced that we would walk to Dataran. He reminded everyone to stay calm and to walk slowly and in an orderly manner. He also urged everyone not to react to any provocation, and to remember that we were there to fight for free and fair elections.

As we started walking, the chants of “Hidup Rakyat!” and “Bersih! Bersih!” rang out again.

Making our way through Lorong TAR. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

As we made our way through the narrow back-alleys, I looked around and took in the scene again. I couldn’t stop doing this. I wanted to remember what it felt like to be walking shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Malaysians for a single purpose. Just for a few hours, our differences were cast aside. We all want a better future – and to be able to determine our future in a fair manner. More balloons. More chants. Beautiful.

When we arrived at the junction of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and Jalan Melayu, the crowd couldn’t move further forward. The main road was already packed with seated people. So another drink to continue our minum tour – canned chrysanthemum tea – and sat down. “Duduk Bantah!” (Sit-in Protest!)

Squeezing our way through Jalan TAR. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

After about 5 minutes, we realised that there were quite a number of people walking off, past us, so we stood up and walked forward into the space that they vacated.

I pointed out to Fahri that it’s quite easy to know where to walk, where the path would be clearer: “Just look for where the sunshine falls on the road – everyone is packed into the shady areas”. So we did, and we inched and inched – there were two tidal flows, some moving in, some moving out – until we got to Dataran.

Looking back up Jalan TAR. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

Dataran – Anwar arrives, and we are brutally gassed by the police

We settled on a spot just under the LRT tracks, so we were about 20-30 metres I guess from the barricades? (a two-lane road and some pavement). Again, we took in the atmosphere. We spoke a bit to people on either side of us. It looked like we had done it – that we had all successfully pulled off a peaceful, beautiful rally, and that the police had allowed us to.

We started talking about crowd estimates. While it’s obviously difficult for us to give an accurate estimate, we were sure that the crowd was massive – at least 70,000 surely. There were big crowds wherever we went, and there were also many people walking around in big groups. We didn’t even make it to Dataran Maybank, where there was apparently one of the bigger crowds, and we also knew there was a big crowd that came from KLCC.

I also know of many who came in the morning and left around 2.30pm after they had “made their point”. Most of the people I knew who attended Bersih didn’t give a damn about the “It’s BN’s fault!” or “Anwar started it!” argument, and all the noise generated online and offline by people arguing, blame-shifting, labelling – they came to show that they wanted free and fair elections.

It was a stunning turnout, and a great day.

There were chants of “Bersih! Bersih!” and “Hidup Rakyat!”. Massive balloons were passed above the crowd, and people were sitting and standing and just drinking in the atmosphere.

Party atmosphere at Dataran Merdeka. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

After some time, we noticed that there was a massive flag arriving from an elevated position.

Me: “Check out the huge-ass flag.”

Fahri: “What does it say on the flag?”

We both focused and as it approached we read it: “SAMM: Solidariti Anak Muda Malaysia”.

Fahri: “What the hell is that?”

Me: “Beats me.”

I pointed out an approaching rain-cloud to Fahri: “Look, it might rain. We might get Edmund’s perfect assembly after all. While the fella is dossing about in Sarawak.”

We then realised that it was some sort of truck or lorry that was bringing in the flag-bearer, and that there were a number of people seated in the back of it.

Fahri: “How the heck did they manage to get that in here?”

Me: “Ya man, selamba only driving in, damn cool innit.”

As it came to a stop at the barricades, just in front of us, we spotted the individuals – Nurul Izzah, Wan Azizah and Dr Jeyakumar.

Me: “No wonder lah can drive in.”

And then Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang stood up and walked to the front of the lorry. The crowd cheered loudly – in fact, they roared. Anwar took the megaphone and led chants of “Bersih! Bersih!” and “Hidup Rakyat!”. The crowd was really jostling around at this point, and we were focusing on keeping our footing. Some people in front of me ended up behind me, as I seemed to have been jostled further forward.

Anwar makes an appearance. | Photo by LoyarBurok

Me: “Where the hell is Ambi man?”

Fahri: “Yeah, I can’t believe she didn’t show up. She’s supposed to be running this. I’m here for her, not for bloody Anwar.”

Me: “Maybe she’s coming in a bit.”

Fahri: “Yeah, maybe.”

(We later found out, when zooming in on some photos taken there, that Ambiga actually was on the truck – it was like Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, where a face reveals itself in a photo after some high-powered zooming. She was seated, on the Dataran side, away from the crowd. She did not stand up. She did not speak. I read reports about her speaking and asking the crowd to disperse, but I can clearly state that this did not happen at Dataran. As I said, we did not even know she was there. I am still disappointed that she did not even bother standing up to show herself. Many of us turned up because of her invitation, and she should have at least acknowledged the crowd and said something.)

A glimpse of Ambiga. | Photo by Fahri Azzat

I had a very clear view of Anwar from where I was standing, and this is what I saw. Note that these are how I interpreted events at the time – I know there’s been a lot of subsequent discussion about what happened, but to me it seemed quite clear.

Anwar repeatedly gestured for the crowd to move back, away from the barricade. Every time he did this, there was a noticeable push back, and I had to try hard to maintain my footing. As I mentioned, some people in front of me ended up being pushed back behind me when this happened.

I would say there were at least 3 instances of Anwar gesturing to “move back” and the crowd obeying and pushing back.

Anwar asking the crowd to calm down. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel
Anwar again gesturing for calm. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel
One of the individuals asking the crowd to move back. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel
Again, an individual asking the crowd to move back. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

Anwar also made a gesture towards the barricades – I assumed at the time that he was making this gesture to the police officers there. He would do a hands-together “praying” gesture, and a “open” gesture, as if asking the police whether they would consider letting us in. After doing this twice, he turned to us, and shrugged, with palms turned upward, as if to say “oh well, I tried”.

The crowd chanted “Buka! Buka!” (Open! Open!) Anwar at this point again gestured for the crowd to “move back”, and made a gesture telling people at the front to “calm down” repeatedly.

His “move back” gestures were very clear.

After that, Anwar seemed to have given up, and sat crouching with his hand over the shoulder of another individual on the truck. This individual, together with another individual, were observed repeatedly asking the crowd to “move back” as well as at one point making clear “no” gestures to someone, or a group of someones, at the front of the crowd.

Anwar, squatting and smiling. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

Suddenly, we heard a loud cheer from the front of the crowd.

Fahri: “Eh, they’re letting us in!”

Me: “No, wait. Don’t move first. Wait and see. It might be a trap.”

I looked at Anwar and he seemed surprised at whatever was happening at the front, and was waving his hand in what I interpreted as a disapproving gesture to say “no, no”.

As much as we heard cheering and noticed some people at the front moving forward, and noticing that there were some people running around past the barricades, the crowd around us did not move forward. We all stood still, stunned really, but making no attempt to barge into Dataran Merdeka.

Within seconds, we saw plumes of smoke up ahead, and water cannons being deployed.

Fahri: “Fuckers! They lured them in and whacked them.”

Me: “Good thing we didn’t move forward right? The order was you cannot go into Dataran, so those fellas went in and kena lah.” I thought we would be safe since we were just standing outside, and the crowd was not surging in. How naive of me! I was quickly proven wrong.

Fahri: “Eh bugger, the trucks are moving forward!”

Suddenly I heard the “poom poom poom poom poom” which I recognised as tear gas canisters being fired, from all the YouTube videos I’d seen before. I noticed a canister flying high and seemingly on a trajectory to land right on our heads. I pointed this out to Fahri: “Shit, look at that one!” It thankfully hit the LRT tracks and seemingly got stuck on top. I didn’t want to find out, as we turned and ran.

Here’s the surprising part – although we had not seen any tear gas canisters going past us, when we turned, it was already a wall of smoke in front of us. (I was later informed that there were several individuals in the crowd who rolled tear gas canisters into the crowd from behind – several people told me this, at least 5 different accounts, and some also said that the individuals rolling the tear gas canisters were wearing yellow t-shirts).

I had no choice, I had to run into the gas.

It was thick gas, and it was my first time experiencing tear gas. I don’t see why they bloody call it “tear” gas – my eyes didn’t really tear up as much as it felt like my skin was melting. I shouted to Fahri: “Bro, spit it out, whatever you do, don’t swallow it in!” and that was the last I saw of him for some time.

As I was running, the first sensation was of my face burning, then the back of my neck, then my arms and legs. Then I could hardly breathe. I was gagging and vomited mucus. Around me, I could hear people screaming and vomiting.

I heard more “poom poom poom poom” (how many were they firing at us?!) and thought I saw a canister fly by towards my left and hit a building.

Then my vision went, and my eyes burnt. My nose was like a faucet. I kept spitting and spitting as I went along.

The air was thick with gas for what seemed like an eternity. I remember thinking that surely I would pass out – I had to breathe, but every breath brought sharp pain. It either felt like I was on fire, or that someone was rubbing cili padi all over me (including in my eyes). I was trying to figure out how to fall down and pass out without being trampled on. Then a lady beside me tripped; I grabbed her arm and jogged along with her until she regained her balance and could run again. That effort of having to catch her seemed to distract me from my own pain, and it suddenly became bearable.

The air thinned out and seemed to clear of gas. I took my squirt water bottle from my pouch and squirted my eyes and face and mouth. I passed it to a young Malay boy on my left, and he took it and sprayed water over his face as well. An older Indian man on my right also asked for it, and I shared it with him.

I looked around for the first time, and realised that I was at Kamdar. That was quite a distance to run. And it made me realise the extent to which the gas was rolled in behind us.

“Bloody bastards! Why did they gas us! We were standing around doing nothing!” I said out loud. People around me were also cursing as they regained calm “Babi punya polis!” (Police pigs!) “Polis serang rakyat!” (Police attacking the people!) “What the hell is wrong with the police?!” I pulled over at Kamdar, and washed my face and arms again. A Chinese guy came over to offer me some salt. It helped a lot, and my head seemed to clear up.

A few of us – young student-looking Malay guys, a young Chinese couple, an elderly Chinese couple, an old Indian man, and a few others – were standing around Kamdar for a couple of minutes ranting and raving about why the police decided to open fire. This is when I was told by some of them that they saw individuals rolling tear gas canisters into the crowd, quite a distance back from Dataran Merdeka. They had no idea what was going on in front – in fact many of them did not even know that Anwar and the truck of other people had arrived. Many of them were still sitting on the road when tear gas started to fill the air, and they had to quickly stand up to avoid being trampled on.

I really could not understand why the police would try to box us in. This was no dispersal. If the intention was to disperse the crowd from entering Dataran, why roll tear gas in the middle and behind most of us? We were boxed in.

It reminded me immediately of how June Rubis was ambushed like an animal at Bersih 2.0. The police were cruel, and acted wholly inconsistently. They endangered our lives, and obviously had the intention of inflicting pain and suffering. There was no “warning bell” which I have been informed numerous times is a standard operating procedure, and which the FRU and Home Minister always insist is a procedure that is followed.

And there was a hell of a lot of tear gas fired; a ridiculous amount. Even after we turned and saw a wall of gas, I kept hearing the “poom poom poom poom”.

This is our police force, which is supposed to serve and protect us. Instead they ended up inflicting unnecessary pain on us and protecting a field. I was livid.

The post-gas crowd, dispersing peacefully. | Photo by Marcus van Geyzel

After the chaos

After a couple of minutes, I heard the “poom poom poom poom” again, so everyone started running up the road again.

Along the way, there were several groups of policemen standing at the side of the road. Some of them were goading the crowd aggressively. “Padan muka!” (Serves you right!) “Kenapa lari? Balik ke Dataran lah. Padan muka!” (Why are you running away? Go back to Dataran lah. Serves you right!) “Sakit ke? Memang patut!” (Does it hurt? It should!) These are police officers goading people who were not bothering them. It was ridiculous. Thankfully nobody seemed to react to them.

I got to Sogo, and decided to stop again as things seemed to have calmed down.

It was here that I bumped into Rahul and Cristabel. Cristabel had been split up from her group of friends, including June Low whom I know, and I lent her my phone to SMS them and her brother, Nat who I also know. Rahul is a regular UndiMsia! member. He had salt all over his face, and had got tear-gassed quite badly too.

I couldn’t get hold of Fahri, as the phone lines were down and SMSes seemed delayed. Eventually it turns out he ran down a side-street (Jalan Melayu) which we came from and was now having mamak (continuing his makan-minum tour without me obviously) near Masjid India, far away from the main road. He asked to go back and join him as “things seemed peaceful” I considered it, but then we saw crowds running up the road again and I saw smoke in a distance. Me, Rahul, and Cristabel started jogging forward.

As we got to Pertama Complex, Cristabel said: “There’s traffic here. I think we’re okay now. They wouldn’t fire tear gas when there’s traffic right.” I wasn’t so sure. “You never know with these fellas.”

Then we noticed a crowd of police officers suddenly making their way into the area, and I said: “OK, time to make a move again, we don’t want to be hanging around here.”

We arrived at Maju Junction and sat down again. Cristabel managed to get hold of June and they made plans to meet up at Tune Hotel across the road. We noticed that the police suddenly closed Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman to traffic, pulling barricades across the junction from Jalan Sultan Ismail. “I think we’d better cross the road. No traffic means bad news,” I said, so we crossed. There we met June and a whole bunch of other friends. We exchanged stories. I was again told about people rolling in tear gas into the middle of crowds to box them in.

I got Fahri on the phone and he said that things seemed to have quietened down. “All quiet here  man, come and meet me here lah.” Fine, I’ll make my way back to Masjid India. I said my goodbyes to Rahul, June, Cristabel, and the others. I crossed the road and walked past Maju Junction then heard “poom poom poom poom” again and saw people running. Screw that Fahri, it’s not worth it. I turned back and rejoined the group at Tune Hotel.

We decided to get the monorail to KL Sentral, as their cars were parked at Bangsar LRT. So we walked up Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman. I could tell that the mood had changed – many people I walked past looked tired, probably from having been tear-gassed. I looked at some of the more elderly and frail people and wondered how bad it must have been for them.

As I walked past a bus-stop with a massive plastic advertisement with Najib’s face on it, next to the words “Rakyat Didahulukan.” (People First), a woman in a tudung walking past punched his face, swearing, followed by a man who spat on his face, and another man who also spat at him.

As I said, the mood had changed.

Much to think about

At that point, I was more sad than angry really. I was sad that what for the most part was an absolutely beautiful, peaceful gathering ended up on a sour note. I don’t know what happened at the barricades of Dataran, but I do know that the police reaction was extremely excessive. As we went by on the monorail, we noticed that the FRU trucks had pushed all the way up to Jalan Sultan Ismail, parked right in front of Maju Junction.

There is much to think about. Many people have been throwing their opinions about. In fact, many armchair commentators who weren’t even there were already giving strong and confident opinions about whether or not Bersih was a “success” or not. As I mentioned at the beginning, I will not go into these issues here.

This is meant to be a record of what happened, so I do not forget.

As I rode back on the monorail, I chose to remember the beautiful part of the day – before the FRU went wild on us.

The people, the smiles, the festive atmosphere, the balloons, the cheers and songs, the food and drink.

The purpose. The peace.

And yes — it even drizzled a bit at the end. The perfect assembly, almost.

Marcus van Geyzel tweets at @vangeyzel. He believes that the only certain thing in life is that everything can be explained by the transperambulation of pseudo-cosmic antimatter.

47 replies on “Bersih: The Perfect Assembly, Almost”

  1. Ambi said many times she alone is not BERSIH. Just as you keep harping at her, do ask yourself how much help have you offered before this. Looking at this weak female, I feel shy about we MAN!

  2. Marcus, IMHO your 'factual account' speaks louder than any 'analysis' could. Thank you.

  3. Marcus, IMHO your 'factual account' speaks louder than any 'analysis' could. Thank you.

  4. Good read. Felt it was very neutral. I Didnt get to walk in KL on that day. However I was in Dataran Pahlawan Melaka & praised the state government to let B3 & Anti Lynas protest. It was peaceful. Building up to D-day, police there did not indicate roadblocks n baricades. Life goes on as usual. Long story short, B3 went on from 2-4pm. Polis didnt kacau. Rakyat pun disperse after. Tourist lagi ramai. Point is rakyat did not have molotov cocktail n weapons. They werent violent. They just wanted to gether at dataran merdeka. Broke the barricade. In return got chemical gassed and sprayed on plus beaten n harrased. The overturned police car was in retaliation. I cannot accept that the very people which the rakyat is suppose to trust to protect n serve do all those things. It was sad n scary to see groups of policemen beat up helpless men with sticks n thick boots.

  5. Bro, Ambi spoke at Central Market. I was there when she gave her speech. The leaders were each given a designated meeting point to do their speech. Btw, good article! :)

  6. Ambiga did asked us to slowly dispersed right in front of Masjid Jamek LRT station. She mentioned, "Bersurai! Bersurai!" for few times but the rakyat were still in high spirits so she and the others moved forward to the Dataran.. I was right in front of her.

  7. After Ambiga spoke at Masjid Jamek, There were a few guys who turned around and and said AMBIGA asked people to surai…dispersed.. consistently all the way to the next junction. Many dispersed, including me.

  8. Ambiga was there at Masjid Jamek LRT station. She did make a speech but we could hardly hear her. We later found out from others that she asked us to leave then as our purpose for the rally has already been achieved. All we want is clean and fair election. Like you, we were gassed too.

  9. Thanks everyone for your comments. Thanks also for mentioning that Ambi did speak at other locations. I realise that it's impossible for her to speak at ALL locations, and do understand that she did speak up at a few places. The crowd was massive — surpassing expectations really — so perhaps a communication lesson can be learnt here. Perhaps a large sign to say thank you and confirm the dispersal instructions would have been appropriate.

    I have two friends who were near Masjid Jamek along Jalan Tun Perak (at different locations) and they both said Ambi did not stand up when the "float" drove by where they were located. Again, I don't expect her to stop every 20-30m or so, as that would take forever.

    HOWEVER, I don't think it is unreasonable to expect her to have said something where I was. It was at the barricades. Surely this is a crucial location. It was at the intersection of Tun Perak, Tuanku Abdul Rahman, and Parlimen. The crowd was massive.

    I particularly am surprised and very disappointed she did not stand up when the crowd started chanting "Buka! Buka!". Surely this would have been the MOST appropriate time to say that the assembly was over, and to confirm Bersih's instructions that people should disperse. I cannot comprehend this lack of action. It must have been simply a big mistake.

  10. To echo the comments of others, Ambiga did speak when the truck was stopped in front of Masjid Jamek LRT. I didn't hear her give the order to disperse though. And I don't know why she didn't speak again in front of the barricades.

  11. Ambiga led the procession from Central Market. She spoke at the beginning and the end. we were followers.

  12. very nice detailed write up. i was not there … but i felt the spirit of the Rakyat …. damn a lot of explanation is owed to the rakyat with regards to the incidents. i hope they will not just come up with a scripted explanation to just pacify and blind us ….. all they ( police ) did or wanted to do was to stop them from reaching dataran merdeka ……… but is that all necessary??

    1. Actually, it was all very suspicious, when they did not allow my "Uncle" to leave to cross over to Bank Negara, but allowed people who were still streaming in just before the Tear gas attack was launched !!

  13. Ambi spoke at Central Market too. As Malaysian Jaywalker said – thought you should know. Good article though.

  14. I know what you mean bro, I was there n it was my first time attending a rally like this for a good cause. If there is another one…. I'll be there !!! Hidup Bersih, hidup rakyat Malaysia!!!
    Ps. Ironically, Bersih created a real satu Malaysia without all the fake 1 Malaysia mumbo jumbo!!!

    1. The real Malaysian on the streets walking together peacefully for a single solid cause … like u say not the fake paint up 1Malaysia ….

  15. Thanks bro, well documented. I was there too together with Ambi, in front of the Jamek station. She was there giving speech to the crowd, thanking everyone for supporting the historical event. The atmosphere was super carnival.

  16. Thanks bro, well documented. I was there too together with Ambi, in front of the Jamek station. She was there giving speech to the crowd, thanking everyone for supporting the historical event. The atmosphere was super carnival.

  17. Well documented, food trip & all. This has put together some of my missing pieces as I was to the far right of where the crowd broke through.

  18. Syabas rakyat Malaysia, for promoting the authority of national identity. This is truly a watershed moment of the resurgence of our national identity! If democracy is to survive, then the solution lies in political coalitions. And if the momentum is to be maintained, a broad agreement MUST be negotiated between all major participating parties about the direction, shape and pace of strategy , so that whatever maybe the composition of the coalition, the strategy is kept on course.

  19. on Jalan Tun Perak. Ambiga did speak. Before Anwar. Thought you should know.

  20. Respect bro.
    I was there but not tat near to the barricade.
    Good article. it explain how such a peaceful event would turn so chaotic.
    i too feel sad. But i believe all will be good.
    We can change Malaysia!

  21. Well done Marcus! Enjoyed reading your detailed and well written piece. Looking forward to your follow up article on your thoughts. Just to let you know that as I 'duduk bantah' in peaceful Bersih-Kuching, you were all in my thoughts and prayers when the tear gas was fired. Cheers!

  22. I was there at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, having made my way there from Petaling Street. I was just standing next to Steven Thiru and his fellow volunteers. Me and my mates were just chatting away by the scorching pavement (and posing for pictures – who wasn’t on that day?) When we heard commotion coming from the direction of Dataran Merdeka. We saw the trucks moving forward with the water cannon. Then we heard the ‘poom, poom, poom’ as you mentioned. Many nearer to Dataran were gesturing to us to retreat and we promptly did so as it was obvious that the FRU was charging in our direction. Before we knew it, our eyes started tearing and breathing was difficult. We made our way through an inner lane and rested at Jalan Masjid India were the pondok polis was. A group of policemen (about 30 to 40 of them) were stationed there watching us catch our breath and senses. We also took the time to condemn the FRU’s action of firing tear gas at our direction without prior warning or reason. After about 10 minutes, we heard the sound of ‘poom, poom, poom’ nearby and it was clear that we were being hunted. We turned to the back lane of Malayan Mansion and walked across a bridge towards Jalan Melayu and headed back to Petaling Street. And yes, I also met Fahri on that bridge and shook his hands. He was as incessed as I was in the way peaceful demonstrators were subjected to unnecessary tear gas attacks.

  23. You are right – Malaysian policemen come only in tembam size D Good write-up with good graphics!

  24. Enjoyed this. Nice to see efforts to report events as they unfold without bucket loads of conjecture thrown in. People in general like to talk about the drama and that's to be expected. But sticking to the purpose is, IMHO, the crux of the matter. The point was made when even more people turned up this time and showed the same solidarity last year for the sake of the purpose. No amount of distraction or lies can take that away.

  25. Dear Marcus,

    I kinda fell sick yesterday, reflux and all, to which my son said, it could be anxiety. I asked him if I could die of a broken heart. My daughter said I could but my son said said if he opened me up, he wouldn't be able to see my heart broken, physically. I thought if I died yesterday, it would be because of a broken heart. Even last year, when I was tear-gassed and all, I wasn't angry. I was really sad, just like you. However, I'm not dispirited. I will live, to fight another day, for fair and free elections.
    Hope you are better, now. God bless.

  26. Great read! love the article. my sentiments exactly. it was a largely peaceful assembly, it should not be defined by the violence but by the peace and festive mood, which was the majority of the time.

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