Sunday April 29, 2012
A riot at peaceful rally
By SHAHANAAZ HABIB
It was a promising start but then all hell broke loose when a handful of protesters defied the police and broke through the barricades.
AT first, it seemed like a promising start and so different from last year's Bersih 2.0 rally.
From very early in the morning, Bersih 3.0 supporters showed up in massive numbers, proudly wearing their yellow Bersih t-shirts. Some carried balloons, flags and banners, all in yellow and some had on yellow caps, wrist watches and shoes.
Although the rally was supposed to be from 2pm to 4pm, they were happy enough to be there early and to wait. They sat as close as they could to the barricaded Dataran Merdeka which was declared out of bounds to them by KL City Hall (DBKL).
They played music, sang songs and chanted “Bersih Bersih” and “Duduk Duduk Duduk Bantah” their rally cry for electoral reforms and free and fair elections.
And for hours the police stood aside, looking relaxed and doing nothing. This despite a few rude posters stuck in front of the police barricades and barbed wires stating “Welcome to Tel Aviv”.
The atmosphere was such a change (and a breath of fresh air) from the Bersih 2.0 rally last July 9 when Bersih was outlawed, their yellow t-shirts banned and key figures including Bersih chairmen Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan and Datuk A. Samad Said and Pakatan Rakyat leaders barred from entering Kuala Lumpur (although they defied the order and showed up anyway).
Back then too, the police were checking the bags of people coming out of the Masjid Jamek LRT station and on the streets to see if they had Bersih t-shirts or anything yellow. Those who did were quickly arrested.
And when defiant Bersih supporters showed up in groups at Masjid Jamek, Central Market, Pudu, Masjid Negara and other parts of the city, the FRU moved in quickly to disperse with water cannons and tear gas and they arrested over a thousand people.
This time around, groups gathered in the thousands and marched. The mood was festive with all races coming together and sitting together to call for electoral reforms.
And the police just stood watch.
It seemed at first that the peaceful assembly was going happen.
General manager Michael Cheng, who described himself as a law-abiding citizen, stayed away from last year's Bersih 2.0 rally because he didn't want to break the law.
“I have no fear this year. Today, we can wear what we want and join in a peaceful assembly,” said Cheng, who gave up his expensive clothes for the day to don a RM15 Bersih t-shirt.
“The purpose of my coming here today is for electoral reforms. I want free and fair elections regardless of who wins. We get news, information and knowledge from the Internet which we've never had before.
“And we are aware of what is right and wrong and what is fair and unfair so I thought I'd play my part for the future of the country.”
He was delighted to see Bersih supporters and the police being friendly with each other and even happily posing together for photos. That was around noon.
Cheng said he agreed with Ambiga that supporters shouldn't head to Dataran Merdeka, which has been declared out of bounds by the court until May 1.
“We shouldn't break the law. There's a court order so we should hang around the periphery. That's a better message than breaking the law,” he said.
The police had erected barricades around Dataran Merdeka to enforce a court order that the square be out of bounds for 48 hours.
Bersih co-chairman Ambiga had said on Friday that they would respect the court order and remain outside Dataran.
Yet, a number of protesters including university students who were at the rally yesterday were determined that they would still try to make it to Dataran.
Shortly after 3pm, some did.
Dr Wan Chee Hung jumped over the barricade erected near the Bar Council “because somebody had to do it” and offered flowers to the FRU “to let them know we are non-violent.”
At the Masjid Jamek area, after Ambiga made her speech calling for free and fair elections, she asked the massive crowd there to disperse but they didn't leave.
Instead, some protesters pushed past the barricades and barbed wires and tried to make their way to Dataran Merdeka. And the jovial festive-like atmosphere at the rally changed very rapidly.
The FRU moved in and started firing water cannons and tear gas. And it felt like the situation was deteriorating to how it was at last year's Bersih rally.
The crowd dispersed, then re-grouped and the police chased after them on foot. The FRU fired more tear gas and water cannons not only at Masjid Jamek or entrances to Dataran Merdeka but also in other non-barricaded areas further away like Jalan Pudu and Petaling Street where protesters had gathered.
This cat-and-mouse game went on for about four hours.
Commenting on yesterday's situation, Umno Youth chief and Rembau MP Khairy Jamaludin said he had no issue with a peaceful assembly but when an assembly became politically charged, that was a problem.
“The NGO that is leading Bersih lost control of the crowd and the rally was hijacked by the opposition,” he noted.
“Ambiga underestimated the political nature of the gathering which resulted in stubborn groups of people staying on. Even when she asked the crowd to disperse and not to cross the barricades, they didn't listen and went on to break down the barricades.”
For Khairy, it was silly to argue that this only happened because the protesters were denied the right to assemble at Dataran Merdeka.
“DBKL made that decision and Bersih agreed to abide by the court order. And looking at what happened, if DBKL had allowed them to be in Dataran Merdeka from 2pm to 4pm, it's highly unlikely they would have left at 4pm,” he said.
“The lesson is that when the authority has given an option to hold it in the stadium, you should take it.
“And you can have thousands in the stadium, the bleachers, the car park and it would have been a phenomenal success and you would have made your point. It is very sad. It shouldn't have ended up like this (in chaos),” he said.
However, Subang MP R. Sivarasa blamed what happened on the police's “complete over-reaction”.
He said that while it was true that 30 to 40 people pushed past the plastic barricades, the bulk of the supporters were holding the line and not moving forward.
“The police could have easily pushed these 30 to 40 people back or given them a warning that if you don't move back, we are going to send in the water cannons.
“Instead, the police lobbed tear gas into the crowd and that created a stampede and chaos. It's very dangerous and reckless to do that. People could have died. You make people so angry when you do that,” he said.
He said people in other countries would laugh if the act of protesters breaking past plastic barricades and marching up to the police was defined as an act of violence.
“It's not like they were hitting somebody's head, for God's sake. It's not like the people had sticks or metal bars,” he said, adding that the police should have exercised “responsible crowd control”.
Sivarasa suffered a foot injury in the chaos but for him, the rally was quite an “amazing success” because of the “amazing turnout”.
Views were divided over what happened.
For days, weeks, and months, maybe even years to come, people would still be discussing what went wrong and who's to blame at what was supposed to be a peaceful assembly.