To be honest, I was somewhat reluctant to join in the rally. While I consider myself interested in politics, I’m more of a policy wonk. I like to think about how social engineering is achieved through legislation and education. By contrast, politics in Malaysia is about personalities. This makes the local scene very uninteresting to me. Similarly, while I laud the movement’s aim of clean and fair elections and I do agree that political gatherings are a fundamental right and not a privilege that we need to apply permission for, I also think that there is substance in the government’s complaints that the movement is simply a political rally organized by the opposition parties. I think it is a mistake that the opposition parties tried to grab so much of the focus. Bersih is supposedly a coalition of many NGOs. Why not have them take center-stage instead of the opposition parties?
At the same, I was scared. The risk of being arrested and having to face the consequent legal hassles were slight but non-negligible. One of our friends, who seems to join in all these protests, had also warned us that the authorities would be sure to deploy tear gas. We would also need to run at a moment’s notice, a dangerous activity while being in the middle of a crowd. Then there’s always the chance that things could get really ugly if the Perkasa and Umno Youth counter-rallies actually manage to clash with the Bersih group. Still, my wife was quite insistent, we had plenty of friends who would be going and it was for a good cause, so we went.
Even getting to our designated meeting spot on the day was a difficult task due to the lockdown, and none of our friends had good ideas about how to go about it. In the end, Shan’s parents dropped us off just before the General Hospital where the police had blocked the road and we started walking from there. We’d set off before 10 am, so we had plenty of time and we tried to walk slowly so as not to arouse unnecessary attention from the police. I’d brought a backpack but only carried water, an umbrella and Shan’s sunglasses in it. Following advice from the organizers, we’d also emptied out our wallets in case we were arrested or detained, bringing only our IC and the minimal necessary cash.
While the roads only had very light traffic there was still a decent number of pedestrians around when we reached the Chow Kit area. Police were all around, especially at road junctions, but they did nothing to stop pedestrians. We did notice that there were clumps of people sitting at the sides of the road and at the bus stops as if they were waiting to watch something. No idea what’s up with that.
We encountered our first problem on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman before reaching the junction with Jalan Sultan Ismail. We noticed large numbers of people moving towards us. We were the only pedestrians moving towards the city center. Everyone else was moving away. After a while it became clear why. The whole road was filled with police who were herding everyone away. We tried to duck into a small alley but we were noticed. One Chinese policeman stopped us and demanded us where we were going in Mandarin. My wife honestly replied that we were headed towards the city center. He then demanded to look through our bag. Since he couldn’t find anything incriminating, he let us go but told us to go back in the other direction. We complied but moved across to Jalan Raja Laut when we could and continued into the city.
At the Jalan Sultan Ismail junction, we took a side road to avoid the police, passing by Chung Kwok Primary School, where we had both studied. By the time we neared the Pertama Complex, the road almost empty of anyone except for police. After hesitating for a while, we tried blending in with two tourist couples. A pair of Caucasians walked up to the police to ask what was going on and we even pretended to huddle in to hear them. Then I asked the police if it was okay to proceed forward from that point. The man said yes, so on we went, blithely walking next to squads of police in full riot gear without incident.
We actually found it easier to get around once we reached the city center as there were many more pedestrians walking around. I guess the police were mainly interested in closing off the main access routes but couldn’t do much about the people already in the center. Near the Masjid Jamek area I noticed the police pulling aside people to ask them where they were from and what they were doing and checking their bags. We didn’t get stopped again however. Our tourist disguise must have been very convincing. I think the police tried to minimize conflict by instructing their officers to mainly approach and interrogate pedestrians of their own race. Just as we were stopped and questioned by a Chinese officer, I noticed that Indian police officers mainly stopped Indian civillians and Malay officers mainly stopped Malay civilians.
Our friend had asked us to assemble near the Popular Bookstore in Petaling Street at 1 pm. We arrived at the Kota Raya Complex at 11.45 am which was far too early, so after calling a few friends who we knew would also be coming and asking after their progress, we went into the nearby McDonald’s for lunch. The streets around here are normally choked with traffic so seeing them free of cars was quite a novelty. Many shops were closed but I noticed that all the nearby eateries that were open were doing a roaring trade. I suspected that almost everyone there were like us, arriving early for the rally, but it would be awkward to ask. At the restaurant, we met up with a friend who had parked his car at the Pudu area and walked over here without incident.
We left the restaurant at 12.45 pm, just in time to see a huge crowd of people walking down Jalan Tan Cheng Lock and turn into Jalan Sultan. The size of the crowd surprised me and I have no idea where and how they gathered. They were marching at a pretty brisk pace and at this time there were still many bystanders watching them with bemused expressions on their faces. The Malay women in the group kept calling out “Mari, mari, semua mari,” to the bystanders to cajole them into joining the march. So we duly fell in with them.
After meeting up with friends, all of us walked at a slow pace towards the road that led to Merdeka Stadium. The crowd was composed of mostly men and young people and the vast majority by far were Malays. The Malays were also the most enthusiastic, disciplined and organized. I couldn’t identify particular leaders but from time to time someone would shout out a slogan and the people around him would follow along. Mostly they shouted things like, “Hidup rakyat” and “Bersih, bersih”. Occasionally someone would try something a little naughtier, like “BN kotor”. I was discomfited however when they shouted “Reformasi” which is an explicitly PKR slogan or even “Allahu Akbar”. Fewer people followed along with these chants however.
The atmosphere at the time was like a carnival. The people who worked in the shops on both sides of the street seemed supportive, coming out to watch while wearing their uniforms and clapping their hands. Cameras and mobile phones were obviously everywhere and I was especially amused to see people holding up Ipads and Galaxy Tablets to take videos. People were also constantly talking on their phones, communicating with friends and expressing pride at the size of the turnout despite the lockdown around the city, It was impossible for me to estimate the crowd’s size or to know what was going on outside of my immediately vicinity. All I know is that the entire length of Jalan Sultan was filled with people. Until we reached the junction that led to the stadium, there was no police presence at all, other than a helicopter that kept buzzing us. Whenever it came near, the crowd would jeer at it.
The procession stopped for a very long time when it reached the junction. I could make out the police presence above as the road to the stadium slopes upwards but I wasn’t close enough to see what was going on. I could tell that there was a significant distance between the main mass of the crowd and the police barricade. And then word passed down the line that we would be going back the way we had come to try another route. I have no idea who made these decisions and how they were communicated. I just followed the crowd and so off we went back towards the Kota Raya Complex.
As we approached the junction on the other end, the crowd started moving faster and people shouted that we should move more quickly. I think this was because the procession was moving towards the Maybank headquarters and gaps had opened up between the groups of people. The worry was that the police might exploit these gaps to break the mass of people into smaller groups, so we were told to close the gaps as quickly as possible. Eventually everyone was gathered in the open area in front of the building and word came that the police had sealed off all roads leading into that space, effectively surrounding everyone.
Once again, we stayed at that spot for a long time. We could get the sense that things were happening. Sometimes a cheer would go up and people would look in one direction, but I, for one, had no idea what was up. Strangers exchanged stories about their experiences of getting there. One told me that he had stayed overnight at the City Hotel and he’d heard people banging on room doors in the night. My wife spotted a friend that she’d known in China and haven’t seen in years. I could see the police vehicles sealing off the exits but things were peaceful and orderly. For all I knew, the plan was just to stay there until 5 pm to make a point and then go home.
But that was not to be. We heard sounds like muffled explosions and people started saying that the police were using tear gas. I think our initial reaction was disbelief. What would be the point? But then the first whiffs of the gas hit our nostrils and then all hell broke loose. I had taken care to hold my breath so I think I wasn’t as badly affected as some, but the panicked reactions of many people around me were truly frightening. People scrambled desperately to get away from the gas, shoving each other and climbing fences and other obstacles in their path. I heard someone nearby vomiting but couldn’t see who it was. I tried to take in short shallow breaths whenever necessary, tried to hold on to my wife and told myself not to fall because being on the ground in a stampede is lethal.
Eventually we made it to the small rise next to the Maybank headquarters and opposite the Puduraya Terminal where the air was clear. I could tell there were fewer people up there than there were at the bottom so they must have dispersed elsewhere but I didn’t know where. I’d coughed a few times, my eyes were teary and my cheeks were burning, but I think my symptoms were mild compared to most of the others. Using the water in my backpack, splashing our faces and taking a couple of gulps of water got rid of my symptoms. People were also walking around offering pinches of salt in plastic bags that were said to help alleviate the effects of the tear gas.
After things had calmed down, the crowd started reforming and moving back down. This time, we followed everyone onto Jalan Pudu. The atmosphere had changed by now. Instead of being joyous and exciting, the mood became one of grim determination and simmering anger at the police. One Malay guy showed me a tear gas canister he’d managed to pick up. We spent some time milling around Jalan Pudu, moving one direction for a time and then changing direction the next. When it started to rain, my wife and I were worried but most people were happy about it, claiming that it would reduce the effectiveness of the tear gas. Slowly by fits and starts, we inched down Jalan Pudu. It seemed like the police was slowly applying pressure to herd us in that direction.
When the rain stopped, the police started using tear gas again. This time people had learned firsthand about the unpleasant effects of the gas and were more proactive about running away to avoid the effects. We found ourselves running into the compoung of Tung Shin Hospital. We actually loitered just inside the compound at first, being unwilling to go further inside and thinking that the police would leave us be if we stayed off the main road. Unfortunately, we heard the sounds of more canisters being fired right at the entrance and off we ran again until we reached the main building. The area was a dead-end however. Some people were so desperate to get away that they attempted the very dangerous-looking climb on the hill behind the hospital.
My friends and I stayed put. By 2.30 pm, things looked calm enough that it looked as if the protest had ended. Everyone was aware that it was a private hospital and behaved accordingly. One guy tried to start a chant and was quickly hushed by people calling him, “Bodoh”. We started to make calls to arrange for transport home. At one point, word came that the management of the hospital had given us permission to rest inside the building so we went inside and I took the chance to browse Malaysiakini on my phone, learning of the events that were still going on at KL Sentral.
So when we got back to the main road, we were disheartened to see that both ends were still sealed off the police. The crowd was no longer a single coherent mass, being more like clumps of people dispersed over the area. As we were wondering where to go, we heard the sounds of tear gas canisters being fired once more and had to run, this head into the Chinese Maternity Hospital next door. The police kept steady pressure on the crowd. Even after we moved off the main road, they followed us into the compound. Then a few hundred of us moved into a small parking lot inside the compound. I don’t know in which direction other groups fled. We were very desperate at this point as it was a dead end with the only way out being a very steep climb up the embankment.
One of our friends preemptively climbed to the top but we were reluctant to follow as it looked difficult and dangerous. Shan perched on the bottom, getting ready to climb in case there was no other choice, and sure enough, throngs of baton-wielding police advanced quickly into the car park. I thought Shan wasn’t going to make it and wanted her to climb back down, but she said later that someone shoved her butt and helped her up. In any case, she was the last one to make it up as the police had already arrived. Because I took the time to see her reach the top safely, I had fallen behind most of the others, and I noticed the police systematically run down and tackle other stragglers who had been separated from the main group. I ran like hell to get back to the safety of the crowd, which looked almost completely composed of Malays then.
Backed into the corner, the Malay guys tried to organize things, asking the men to step forward to link hands to form a human wall between the police and the Muslim women so as to prevent the police from grabbing anyone. I was at a loss at what to do and stayed between the wall facing the police and the group of women on the inside. The ground here was very soft and muddy, making it hard to get a good footing. When it looked like the police was intent on grabbing everyone that they could, the guys shouted for everyone to climb up the embankment and I found that the climbing route here was much easier than the one Shan had taken. The guys asked everyone to allow the women to climb up first. When one of the Malays noticed me, he even asked me to let the women climb first in English and I complied.
When I had almost reached the top, I noticed my phone ringing and sure enough it was Shan calling to ask where I was. It was easy enough then to rejoin her and a couple of other friends who had climbed up early. By then, all the fight had gone out of us and we wanted nothing more than to go home. The small road at the top seemed empty of police so we walked down it. One of our friends was missing and we worried that he’d actually been caught. When we managed to call him, we were relieved to find that he’d escaped as well but I still don’t understand where he went. The road led us to Jalan Raja Chulan and traffic was normal there so we could blend in and become ordinary civilians again. One of the Malay guys said those who still had the energy to continue could turn left back to the Petaling Street area and the rest could go right and try to make their way home. We chose to go home, eventually reaching the Bukit Bintang area and taking the monorail to the Titiwangsa station where Shan’s father was waiting for us. We learned later that those who had chosen to continue made it to the KLCC area.
And that’s the story of how my day at the Bersih rally went. Since this post has gone on for long enough, I’ll leave my thoughts and opinions for another post and take a break here.