Wednesday 20 July 2011

Bersih rally was 1Malaysia in action

EYEWITNESS There's light at the end of the tunnel and it is not from an on-coming train.

Malaysians are slowly but surely emerging from the dark hole that we have been in for well over 40 years. I am once again confident of our country's future; recent events have convinced me of this.

NONEI would be the first to admit that I have often doubted the resolve of Malaysians in the face of repression and abuse of power by its authorities. I look at Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, even Myanmar, and wonder at the courage of their citizens who fight for change against almost insurmountable odds.

Then I look at ourselves and wonder why we seem so useless. Or perhaps we are not really useless - perhaps we are just a little more patient. However, 40 years of abuse of power will wear away even the patience of a saint. Today, July 9, that patience has evaporated.

Bersih 2.0 rally day

No one seems to know what was going on. One minute it was reported that the police had given a permit for a rally at Stadium Merdeka and an hour later, the news was that no permit had been given. This was exactly the problem faced when relying on the Internet, text-messages and emails that were the only alternatives to the mainstream media, which people now trusted less and less.

NONEUpon ringing up my contacts, I was put in touch with someone who told me to meet up at a restaurant in Brickfields at 11.30am. By that time, the police presence was already noticeable in Little India. As I entered the restaurant, a familiar voice called out my name.

In the dim light, I could only make out a set of flashing teeth. When my eyes finally adjusted to the light, I realised that it was M Kulasegaran, the MP for my constituency, Ipoh Barat. The ex-Perak speaker V Sivakumar and Selangor exco Charles Santiago were also present, along with other opposition assemblymen and MPs.

From the restaurant, we moved to Fatima Church, which is around the corner. It was decided that the church offered a safe sanctuary. Those who knew the terrain planned the route which we would take to Stadium Merdeka. We were to take the side streets and lanes as the main roads were blocked.

On the way, we stopped at the Temple of Fine Arts, which was a vegetarian restaurant of apparently fine repute. However, the management was not exactly welcoming. The police followed us - in plainclothes and uniform. They waited on the other side of the road.

NONEIt was suggested that we move off in twos and threes to our destination. Some decided to have lunch at the Temple before the main event. Kula (left) opined he could protest louder on a full stomach. I preferred an empty tummy, in case I had to run; but the restaurant would not admit me because I was inappropriately attired.

A stranger from out of town, I followed the general flow of pedestrian traffic. By this time, I was on my own, safe in the knowledge that I alone did not constitute an illegal assembly and therefore should not attract unwanted attention. In Malaysia, a gathering of five or more constitutes an illegal gathering.

Menacing sight

As I got nearer to the stadium, the flow of people got larger. It was now not only Indians (who I had followed from Brickfields), but also Chinese and Malays. Before long, the trickle of people turned into a flood and the crowd swelled by the thousands.

There were the young - well prepared with scarves, bottles of water and salt. And there were the old - less prepared but equally determined. There were middle-aged women and men.
NONEI was particularly impressed by a phalanx of Malay girls in full tudung and masks. They were well drilled and marched as a disciplined group to the front of the demonstration. There were also Red Crescent girls who stood by to offer first aid if needed.

We marched as one, shouting “Hidup Bersih”, “Hidup Rakyat”, with clenched fists pumping up and down. A white-haired Chinese lady confessed to me that she did not really understand what was being shouted but she made her quota of noise anyway.

The stragglers were encouraged to catch up by a diminutive old man earing a haji cap who was blowing his whistle and waving everyone forward. They swept to the front, compacting the already dense sea of angry protestors. Someone started singing 'Negara Ku', and this was taken up by the crowd. I have never been so proud as I stood tall with my fellow Malaysians, rededicating ourselves to 'hidup bersatu dan maju'.

NONEThe tear gas and water cannons had not started but there were already many teary eyes, mine included. After a standstill during the national anthem, we moved forward again. The police were now in sight, rows and rows of them backed by a red water cannon truck.

Thirty metres of asphalt separated them from us. They were silent and menacing; we were chanting “Reformasi”, “Hidup Bersih” and “Hidup Rakyat”, fists punching the air in defiance.

Then the water cannon advanced and the crowd surged back, many running helter-skelter. I decided that it was not a problem as long as we stood out of range and encouraged others to stand their ground. The others, upon seeing that we were not drenched, came back.

Before long, the water cannon ran out of water and the crowd surged forward again, now much braver, taunting the police. After a refill, the water cannon came back again and we moved back out of range. This cat-and-mouse game went on for a while, and then the police fired tear gas into the crowd.

We ran but could we could not escape the tear gas. It stung our eyes and we choked. Out came the salt and wet towels. People were passing salt and hand towels around to those who had none but there wasn't enough to go round. I failed chemistry, so I don't know how sodium chloride neutralises the effects of the tear gas, but I know it helped.

The heavens respond

After the pandemonium, we regrouped and once again sang the national anthem to tell the police that we are patriotic and loyal citizens who should not be subjected to such treatment.

From the crowd, a voice cried “Hujan!”, beseeching the heavens to rain upon us, and this was taken up by some. Believe it or not, in the next half hour, it poured cats and dogs. Rain was what we needed for the water cannon and tear gas to have little effect.

God had smiled on us; we felt that nothing could go wrong.

NONEThe rain did more than just stop the tear gas and water cannon. It cooled tempers on both sides. There was a stalemate, and both sides were content to stare at each other, not doing anything to provoke further reaction.

News went around that there had been arrests with other groups - hundreds of them, including the head of Bersih 2.0 as well as some national politicians.

It was apparent then that the rally at the stadium was not to be. The prime minister's promise on this was not worth the breath expended on it. The crowd was angry but resigned to this fact. A half-day's protest had notified the government about the people's sentiments.

NONEOurs was only one group, there were other groups which converged in other parts of KL. To my knowledge, no one was arrested on our side but news filtered through that over 600 others were.

There were no Malays, Chinese or Indians at the demonstration, only Malaysians united by a common cause. This was the true 1Malaysia and not the sham espoused by the government. If this is a glimpse of the future of our country then there are grounds for optimism.

I have always maintained that it is Umno-BN which has divided the people to serve their own interests: the Malays, Chinese and Indians have no quarrel with one another.

I am proud of my fellow Malaysians who, when it counted, overcame race and religion to come together as one.

Hidup Malaysia!

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