709 is not a date to be forgotten. So, I was there, drenched in sweat and rain, running like headless chicken away from the police and FRU, when out of the sudden they were attacking the peaceful gathering outside KLCC. Barefooted, I managed to take refuge inside a pub called The Library. Noticing that my little toe was bleeding. I straight on peaking to the outside window. I saw the police were catching people were caught by the police, chaos were erupted between the protesters, police and surprised tourists. Earlier, I was running together among the peaceful marchers as we were attacked mercilessly by the piercing tear gas at the streets in Puduraya …
Rewind back, so how all these started anyway?
BERSIH is non-partisan coalition body of NGOs striving for clean and fair election in Malaysia. BERSIH started to gain momentum in 2007, with seas of yellow swarming the KL streets. The infamous interview between an Aljazeera reporter with the then Information Minister, Zainuddin, during the live BERSIH march best sums it all. It came at the exact right moment when people were starting to get tired by the government propaganda while their daily lives were stuck in a rut. Coupled with the Hindraf movement by the Indians, 2008 election was doomed to change the political landscape of our country,
Or so we thought.
The irony was, BERSIH 709 was not exploded to this extend if the government didn’t respond with an iron fist. It could had ended up as a festival-like rhetorical chant by the opposition and civil societies in the safe compound of the Merdeka Stadium. It could had been yesterday’s news the next day. Talking about no publicity is bad publicity. Leading toward 709, it was obvious the Najib administration was giving a huge spit to their own faces: BERSIH were on the media almost every day, massive road blocks and traffic jams; wearing YELLOW became a state crime, Even the word BERSIH which carries a neutral meaning for clean is a forbidden word; cancelled bus services and trains; Massive lost in revenue for businesses as KL was shut down into a ghost city; and obvious lies of the government when they forgot that plentiful of video evidence showing people marching in peace while the police were the ones committing brutalities and abuses…
Many people were there for very personal reasons. I was at first undecided to go, especially when the protest were confined into the stadium, worse when the King came into the picture. I am against the idea of monarchy and feudalism, especially when their lives are lapped with luxuries and carelessly eating away the rakyat’s hard earn cash. I believe the monarchy should just confine themselves in the museum as a historical monument. That is to be written in another blog post.
Anyway, I knew I NEED to be there. The cause for BERSIH is too important to ignore.
It took me 2 hours to get back from work with the massive jam, I stayed at a friend’s house in KL. A few of my friends were gathering at different places, one went to KL Central, another went to Stadium Merdeka, while I followed some friends to Petaling Street. KL Central suffered really bad due to its confined area, a lot of the opposition leaders and supporters were tear gas-ed outside the Hilton Hotel, and the whole KL Central were blocked by FRU and police.
I was walking along the way from Times Squares, saw some police trucks stationed by the area. Most people came to KL by walking as the whole roads and public transportation were came into a halt. So far no yellow were spotted except for a small foreign kid who was holding his mother’s hand. A lot of people were merely walking around and pretending to be passerby, but I knew they were protesters that were waiting for the march to start. There were people from SUHAKAM with their bright-coloured vase, groups of observers from the Bar Council and other NGOs, not to forget foreigners from the West and Middle East strolling mindlessly with their partners and kids. I was thinking to myself, today could be the shock of their lives when their witness the FRU reaction against the peace march.
“Hidup Rakyat Hidup Bersih”, followed by cheers and claps. It was a surreal experience, I once joined the anti-ISA march back in 2009, but this was emotionally overwhelming. You see, the situation on the ground is not as what being reported by the mainstream newspaper. If there’s one time everyone felt a sense of unity, a sense of being a patriotic Malaysian, this was one of the rare moment where we all knew what we want, who we were and why we are here.
I had some coffee and chatted with other protesters at Petaling Street. No one was wearing yellow as there were a few undercover plain-clothes police observing for protestors amongst other people there. Then, out of the sudden, while we were walking around the corner of the road, a yellow sea of Malaysians were marching towards us while chanting enthusiastically
I always believe the image of Malaysia is full of colour, that was best described at the march. Ethnicities from all walks of lives, even as far as Sabah & Sarawak, were there as proud Malaysians. Although there were some opposition supporters among the crowd (as heard from their “Reformasi” chants), most were mere simple folks, do not belong to any political parties or civil societies, whom were there to show their right to march peacefully in public. The famed Auntie Anne, an old lady who came all the way by herself with public transport, without any proper attire nor protection, without even aware of BERSIH’s marching time, were there for the very reason as most were – wanting change for Malaysia.
On top of the sky, a helicopter hovered so low that I felt the police was up to something. By then, a huge crowd was gathering in front of Menara Maybank. I was standing afar at Plaza Rakyat station observing. The police reported 5000-10000, while the organisers reported as large as 100000. The thing is, there were pockets of BERSIH protest in so many places around KL that it was hard to make an actual number. Whatever the number was, the atmosphere was a cheerful one, people were clapping and chanting happily, some were holding flowers, yellow balloons, yellow umbrella, it was just a very surreal moment for most of us.
Suddenly.”Boom!”. Reality strikes. People were running like crazy, from a cheerful gathering at Menara Maybank, turned into an ugly scene of people being fired by tear gas and water cannons. There were lots of coughing, red eyes and it was extremely hard to breath. The air was tainted by the poisonous smell of the chemical gas. Nevertheless, the crowd quickly gain momentum and gathered at Petaling street again. Then, they slowly march toward Puduraya street where they almost clashed with the UMNO youth group. The rain only added drama to the whole scene. We constantly go back and forth as we were cornered at both sides.
Funny was, at the other end was the so-called the Patriot group by UMNO youth headed by Khairy Jamaluddin. I had a foreigner friend who was at Times Square when the red group of UMNO youth were, interestingly, they were instead busy handling out red t-shirts to foreigners, asking them to wear. What a shame! Their number was so small anyway. Do not even mention about Ibrahim Ali’s PERKASA.
I was amongst the protestors at Puduraya, drenched in sweat and rain, out of nowhere, the FRU squad fired another round of tear gas, this time they fired it so far that even us from behind were not spared. I can still remember as the white smoke filled the air, the piercing pain, unable to breath, coughing constantly, my eyes were in pain that I was unable to open it, my friends were grabbing my arms as the crowd were pushing each other to get off. At that point, the best word to describe is death.
We managed to go behind the Pudu area and recover. I ate salt and the rain sort of helped me to relief from the tear gas pain. We went to the Tung Shin Hospital compound, thinking that it was a safe spot. Never did I thought the FRU fired a third round of tear gas assault, treating us like as if we were the enemy that needed to be eliminated – all at the Hospital! People were cursing and mad, I heard curses “Babi lah Najib nih” “Bodoh polis, hospital pun nak tembak”. There were a lot of kind Malaysians too, trying to give help to fellow Malaysians escaping away. A guy actual gave us a kind hand to climb up the steep hill.
We were temporarily trapped, as the whole Pudu street were heavily guarded by FRU and police. From above the Tung Shin hospital, I saw they sprayed water cannons too. But I needed to get off from the Pudu area, after an hour, we decided to get off using the back road. At first I thought of going back, but we heard whispers that people were walking peacefully toward the KLCC area. One of the PKR leader managed to strike a deal with the police to allow them to walk peacefully. Can you imagine how huge the crowd was. The street from Jalan Puduraya to Jalan Masjid Jamek all the way to KLCC were full of people walking peacefully. At Masjid Jamek, a LRT star train moved slowly while waving to the peaceful marchers, people were clapping and cheering, even to the hovering helicopter above. There were no evidence of destroyed properties nor violent protestors.
At that moment, something came into our mind – this is what Kuala Lumpur looks like without any vehicles – clean air and peaceful. Reminded me of the old days where lives were much simpler. In fact, we walked all the way from Pudu to KLCC for a very short ducration of time. Hmm, could it be possible to have KL as a car-free zone? The environmentalist me think so.
By the time we reached KLCC, there were a huge gathering outside KLCC. I thought finally the police had come into their senses. But I knew something was wrong again as the helicopter was hovering so low. Predictably, it was then followed by the usual scene by the over-reaction FRU Squad and police. I was separated from my friend when out of the sudden, a group of police were catching people like animals. I lost my sandals and quickly hide inside a pub at the nick of a second the owner were about to shut the door.
And there I was, ended up barefooted, inside a pub, drenched in sweat and rain, while safely looking to the outside at the red FRU trucks and the police. There were even horses (i do not know what purpose it served rather than showing off how “cool” the police squad were). I saw the police were still chasing the crowd, my friend ended up inside KLCC. In the pub, I was explaining to the shocked waitress (they were foreigners), about what the whole thing was all about. I overheard from other protestors who managed to get into the pub that the opposition leaders and BERSIH leaders were caught.
In the evening as everything was settled, I walked barefooted back to my friend’s house. Everything went back to normal the next day. Malaysians were all back in their usual routine lives.
But the subsequent news followed after the BERSIH protest put a huge burden to the government, especially Najib. The international media and community were condemning the government’s brutalities. Najib’s little propaganda to the world also failed miserably too. I was constantly checking the news and all I can say is the damage is done. Too bad, Najib.
My final thought of the whole BERSIH experience: It was definitely an adventure I will never forget, it was the day how we Malaysians were brave souls where showed our strength against an incompetent, colonial-mindset government. Peace!