Pepper Lim describes his first time at a Bersih rally to his little daughter and what he thinks of the government afterwards.
I was not allowed to attend Bersih 2.0. Your grandparents and mummy told me, “Think of your children, what will we tell them if you arrested? Think of your family, we will be so worried if anything happened to you.” So, I stayed at home and watched 30,000 protesters march to pressure the Elections Commission for clean and fair elections.
Come Bersih 3.0 on 28 April 2012, I made up my mind to go. To my surprise, Ah Kong (my father) who had advised me not to attend Bersih 2.0 had also made plans to attend this rally. I had expected this rally to be peaceful. After all, there was much backlash for the government for the use of excessive force in Bersih 1.0 and Bersih 2.0. This time, the T-shirts and the rally were not declared illegal although Dataran Merdeka had been declared off limits and the police had set up barbwire and fences around the area. The night before Bersih 3.0, many people went to Dataran to take photos. It looked festive.
On Saturday morning, after promising the family not to get in trouble, I took the LRT down to Central Market at 10am. It felt like the beginning of a fun-filled day. When I got off the train, I saw people in yellow chatting and laughing away.
I made my way to Central Market’s car park hoping to bump into friends. I saw two makciks wear a face mask with the numbers 3.0 and asked them where they were from. They had traveled from Perak with their family. One of them told me it was too much to see “temporary ICs” given out so close to the elections. To her, this smelled of fraud.
Then I decided to take a walk to Petaling Street and make the most of my time in the city. I wandered along this street and that, meeting people carrying flowers and balloons. Just like me, they were enjoying their Saturday in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.
At one end of Petaling Street, a line of policemen blocked all traffic and people from crossing it. They did not look threatening. The crowd took photos with them and chanted, “Bersih-Bersih!”. It was a peaceful scene; no one chanted derogatory remarks at the policemen.
I continued my wandering and ended up at the old UO Store. There was a big crowd there and I was stuck in the middle of them. It was noon and it was hot. Marshals in red shirts told us to sit down on the road as the large crowd could not move forward nor backwards (someone told us the roads had been closed). Up ahead, there was a small lorry with carrying people waving a large SAMM flag. I sat and chatted with strangers. We passed sweets around and talked about how hot it was. We even waved to the police helicopter flying above us. A few minutes later, Wong Chin Huat climbed the lorry to make an announcement. I could not hear him even with his loudhailer. Still, I knew I was all right if I stayed with the large crowd.
I SMSed mummy the following, “Everything is okay. Many people. Very fun!”
We walked down this street and that as a large group. Marshals ensured we walked towards the corrected direction. It seemed to me that the crowd was trying to make its way towards Dataran Merdeka. By 3pm, I was tired from all the walking and waiting under the hot sun. I found myself a step to sit on and chatted with a retired pakcik from Penang who came with his ustaz. We talked about politics and the elections.
Someone told us tear gas had been fired at Masjid Jamek but we were too far away to see it or smell it. Later, I read uncle Marcus van Geyzel‘s tweet that he was caught in that tear gas.
Around 3.40pm, I saw a group of friends who told me they were going to have a drink at Central Market and to get out of the heat. I did not know it at that time but hell was about to break loose on the crowd.
We walked past the Bar Council and saw more friends. The crowd was blocked by a line of police vehicles at the Loke Yew building. Some chanted, “Bersih-Bersih!” but most were just chatting and posing for photos in front of the police vehicles. Then I heard a bell sound, “Tongggg!” It made my heart skip a beat. The crowd who knew what that bell meant, booed and jeered.
One police vehicle reversed away and the crowd cheered. Could it be? Has the police been told to stand down?
No. A red FRU truck took its place. And before my unbelieving eyes, it started to spray chemical water at the people! I ran for it. My assumptions of a peaceful afternoon were shattered. I scrambled to insert my phone and wallet into a plastic bag. I ran back to the steps where I was chatting with the pakcik and watched as the FRU truck sprayed the crowd. It reminded me of a scene from Godzilla. The crowd jeered at this awful scene. Those closest to the water ran helter skelter.
The next moment, I heard people shouting behind me. I turned and saw thick white smoke. Tear gas! I ran, following the crowd. There was no time to check the wind direction!
“Run, you fool!” I told myself. In the next instant, my eyes could not open. It felt as if there was chilli in my eyes, nose and mouth. I scrambled to take out my towel from my bag, fumbling to wet it with water to wipe my eyes. They stung badly.
I poured the rest of the water on my face while running. The screams from the crowd around me were chilling. I heard men and women screaming in pain; running in fear.
I reached behind Kota Raya and, for someone who rarely cusses, found myself calling out, “F*ckers! They are f*ckers! Such f*ckers!”
My eyes could barely open from the effects of the tear gas.
Nearby, a drinks vendor let the victims use his supply of water to wash their faces. Overhead, the police helicopter flew past a few times; possibly directing the police to the whereabouts of the fleeing protesters.
More shouts were heard. We ran again. Should I run to Tung Shin Hospital where tear gas was fired into at Bersih 2.0 or run towards Masjid Jamek where FRU trucks sprayed chemical water during Bersih 1.0? I was scared and did not know what to do.
I ended up at Ancasa Hotel. I saw some people there recovering from the effects of the tear gas. They too complained bitterly at the police for firing tear gas.
“Why did they fire the tear gas?” one lady victim asked.
“We were about to go home already!” another said.
“We were peaceful,” a Malay man said. “If we were rioters, we would have broken the shops to get water!”
Over at the Petaling Street entrance, more tear gas were fired. The wind blew it into our direction and people ran towards Puduraya. I thought I was safe behind the hotel but a whiff of the tear gas made me scramble for my wet towel. With my eyes tightly shut in pain, I heard people shouting, no doubt shouting from the tear gas.
There was a pakcik and his wife who looked like they had arrived in the city on a bus. They both caught the tear gas blowing in the wind. I ran to help them. Someone else brought salt and a mint for them to eat.
“Well, what do you think of our government? Wonderful, aren’t they?” I asked the pakcik sarcastically.
“They should not have done this to the rakyat,” he replied as he tried to console his wife.
Dear Paprika, if I had any respect left for the government, I lost it all while I stood watching people running and suffering the effects of tear gas. What kind of government would use such excessive force on peaceful protesters?
I turned to a group of people next to me and said, “This is what they call rakyat didahulukan? Podah!”
People ran back and forth past me. They are shooting tear gas there, a fleeing man said. They are shooting tear gas there too, another said, pointing to the opposite direction. I felt scared and angry at the same time. It seemed as though the police wanted to trap the fleeing people.
I saw auntie Padma and auntie Tini and they brought me into Ancasa Hotel. I was most relieved to be inside the hotel’s coffee house. We had a drink and talked about the events of day. Outside, I could hear people running and shouting. Someone with Internet access told us the police were still firing tear gas and spraying chemical water.
I waited till 6.45pm before I left the area to go home. As I walked to the LRT station, I remembered Prime Minister Najib mockingly describe the effects of tear gas after Bersih 2.0 last year. I wish he could try it for himself.
This morning, I found this Facebook page: 1,000,000 Mahu Najib Cuba Tear Gas Sendiri. I clicked “like”.
Do not worry, I shall continue do my best to make this country better for you.
Your loving father,