I had already made my decision right after Bersih 2.0 took place, that if there ever was a Bersih 3.0, I would be there to participate. This was because I hadn’t joined in for Bersih 2.0. I didn’t consider myself the “activist” type and being a corporate lawyer, I (we) tend to prefer staying in air-conditioned comfort, observing events from afar so as not to soil our designer shoes (ok, I’m kidding about the designer shoes).
However, after reading online of the way ordinary Malaysians had stood up for what they believed in during Bersih 2.0 and banded together to help each other regardless of race, colour or creed, I felt somewhat ashamed that I had not joined in for such an important event. I was not about to make the same mistake twice.
On the eve of April 28 2012, I ran through the checklist I had prepared for Bersih 3.0, based on what I had read from the Street Rally Guide. I carefully packed the required items into a waterproof bag. Salt, check. Water, check. Surgical mask, check. In my mind, however, I thought that the possibility of me actually needing to use these items in case of a tear gas attack was pretty minimal. Surely, after all the negative press and condemnation that the government had received over Bersih 2.0, they would not deploy the same tactics again (I mean, how dumb would that be?). I also readied my outfit for the day, which included a yellow top and matching yellow sunnies (natch).
I was in a group of four friends and we decided to take the LRT down to Masjid Jamek. Based on Twitter updates, the LRT stations were open and all was smooth going. We did indeed arrive at the Masjid Jamek LRT station without incident. When we stepped out onto Jalan Tun Perak at roughly around 1pm, the place was packed with supporters from all walks of life. We wandered down the road in the direction of Dataran Merdeka, and observed the mood of people around us. It was cheerful and festive, and everyone was in good spirits. There were regular chants of “Bersih Bersih” and “Duduk Bantah”. There were, of course, other things being chanted but let’s not go into that.
We milled about and as the day was hot, we (being typical Malaysians) sought refuge in the shade afforded by the LRT tracks overhead. The shaded space was highly sought after and once we found a spot, we were loath to leave it. We sat down whenever the crowd sat down, we stood up whenever the crowd stood up, and we joined in whenever a chant started. I never got close enough to see the barriers that had been set up, along with the line of policemen and FRUs jealously guarding the square patch of grass that we call Dataran Merdeka.
Despite an itch to see a water cannon truck up close, it would have involved a long battle through the hot and sweaty crowd, so the desire to remain in the relative comfort of the shade won out. I contented myself with staying put in my shaded nirvana and enjoying the atmosphere around me.
At close to 3pm, I started to become restless, as there didn’t appear to be any direction from Bersih organisers as to what the supporters should do. There were no “leaders” or “marshalls” in our area. Our mobile phone networks had been down for some time and we could not receive any updates on what was happening with the rally in other areas. As we were hungry (and hot), we decided that we had made our point and it was time to head back.
Suddenly, the crowd on our road was excitedly on their feet and cheering. We craned our necks to figure out what all the fuss was about, and then noticed that a truck was passing by with Anwar and his wife in it. The crowd was cheering and clapping enthusiastically. The truck disappeared in the direction of Dataran Merdeka, so we hung around for a short while more, wondering whether Anwar would be giving some sort of direction to the Bersih supporters. By this time, the crowd was really just a sea of people up and down the road.
Not long after the truck had passed us, we noticed that the crowd was starting to collectively head away from Dataran Merdeka. I looked behind and noticed a cloud of smoke in the distance. Wow, it was tear gas! We immediately followed the crowd and shuffled away down the road. The pace was slow as we were packed in like sardines.
I was not worried at that point as the crowd was calm, and I thought the tear gas was just a signal by the police to tell Bersih supporters to disperse. I also thought that we were sufficiently far away to not feel the effects of the tear gas. However, I was proven wrong as in rapid succession, round after round of tear gas was fired in our direction.
The crowd started to panic and surge forward as everyone tried to escape. People were jostling and pushing, and urgent cries of “Cepat, cepat, undur undur!” could be heard. I soon smelled the acrid tear gas and quickly covered my nose and mouth with a wet tissue. It was to no avail as soon afterwards, its effects hit me like a 10-tonne truck. I was choking and coughing violently, and it felt like I could hardly breathe. It was a terrifying sensation and unlike anything I had ever experienced.
I struggled to try and spit out the gas, but this proved utterly futile. At the same time, I felt like I was being crushed by the crowd around me. I noticed that an elderly man nearby had collapsed and was being carried past. I could not understand why this was happening. The rally had been peaceful all this while, why were the police tear gassing us relentlessly? As I stumbled along trying to escape, my friends and people around me gave me water and salt in order to help alleviate the effects of the tear gas.
I actually had these items in my bag, but had basically forgotten to use them in the panic of the moment. The salt brought instant relief and I was incredibly glad at the generosity of complete strangers around us. People were willingly sharing their salt and water with anyone within their immediate vicinity.
We moved in the direction of the Masjid Jamek LRT station, hoping to leave via the LRT. When we neared the station, we found, to our horror, that the station’s shutters were down and that there was no way for us to enter. People were banging at the shutters angrily, and were hurling abuse and water bottles at the sole policeman who stood in the station behind the shutters.
The policeman did not pay heed to the supporter’s pleas and demands to open the shutters. I was appalled and felt incredible anger at the way we were being treated. Instead of facilitating our dispersal from the area, the police were boxing us in with no way out. I genuinely feared for our safety. The anger of the people around us at what the police were doing was palpable.
We tried to move down the side street adjacent to the station but soon found that we could not pass through as it was a dead end ahead. Meanwhile, people in a nearby hotel helpfully sprayed water down on us in order to help wash off the sting of the tear gas.
We were forced to wait in that side street, as we could see that the bombardment of tear gas was ongoing on the main street. I was worried that by staying there, the police would somehow catch up to us and lob tear gas canisters down the narrow side street. However, after a while, the clouds of tear gas on Jalan Tun Perak appeared to subside, and we quickly hurried out and away down the road. We noticed that the FRU trucks had come very far up the street and that some protestors remained in the area in angry defiance.
We decided we had our fill of drama for the day, and decided to walk to the Dang Wangi LRT station. On the way, we bumped into a team of Bar Council monitors and we relayed our story to them. We then continued on. On occasion, police cars and trucks would pass by and protestors on the streets would loudly jeer at the police within and give them the thumbs down signal.
Once we reached the Dang Wangi LRT station, we were relieved to notice that it was open. We stopped to get a cold drink from one of the vending machies outside the station. As we stood there drinking, a man started to roll the shutters to the station down! We quickly dashed in before they could shut the station on us. Again, we were enraged that the authorities were also shutting down another means of escape for Bersih supporters. Luckily the trains were still running so we managed to board the next LRT train and made it safely back to Bangsar.
I found out later that Ambiga had apparently told supporters to disperse shortly after 2pm. However, this message was not filtered down to where we were at Jalan Tun Perak. I also later found out that the police attack on us was the result of a breach of the barriers set up at Dataran Merdeka. Nevertheless, the police retaliation was excessive and without any regard to the safety and lives of Bersih supporters who had merely exercised their right to peacefully assemble. Although the experience of being tear gassed is not exactly a memory I will cherish, I am proud that I attended the rally and that I was a part of something which showed me what being a true Malaysian really is all about.
If there is a Bersih 4.0 in the future, I say “Bring It.” But surely the powers that be wouldn’t be dumb enough to deploy the same tactics again… Would they?
For more Bersih stories, click here.