With the general election around the corner, many Malaysians have expressed concerned about the integrity of the electoral process. Subramaniam Pillay, for his part, recalls how delighted he was to participate with his better half in a significant event in the history of civil society in Malaysia – the Bersih rally. Here are his eye-witness impressions of a day to remember.
I first voted in the 1974 elections. Even at that time, I found the electoral process to be very unfair to the opposition parties in terms of access to the media, prohibition of public rallies after 1974 and the abuse of state machinery for the Barisan Nasional’s (BN) election campaign. In short, it was not and never has been a level playing field when it comes to elections in the so-called Malaysian democracy. Over the years, the election process has become even less fair and free.
Given the Alliance and BN government’s earlier achievements in generating economic growth, I suspect the BN would have won all the past general elections with a simple majority even if the elections were free and fair. Thus, it can only be the greed for absolute power that has driven the BN to resort to dirty tricks to win the elections.
So when we first heard that the Bersih coalition was organising a march to Istana Negara to submit a memorandum to the Agong asking that free and fair elections be held, my wife and I decided that we had to show our support for at least two reasons. First, Aliran is a member of the Bersih coalition and, as an exco member of Aliran, I had to support this endeavour; and secondly, we felt that strong democratic institutions and processes are necessary conditions for the nation to grow economically and maintain ethnic harmony.
A sea of people
On that afternoon (on 10 November 2007) at around 2.00pm, my wife and I left home to join the Bersih gathering at Dataran Merdeka. Just after getting off the LDP highway to join the Sprint highway, we drove smack into a massive traffic jam. After a while, we found that the jam was caused by a police check-point along the Sprint highway. I suppose this was to stop suspected Bersih supporters from attending the rally. After passing through the check point, the road was clear and empty. We drove to the Bangsar LRT station, parked our car there and got onto the LRT heading towards Masjid Jamek station. By this time, it was raining lightly and I wondered whether this would have discouraged many supporters. In the train, I noticed a few passengers wearing the yellow Bersih T-shirt.
As the train approached the Pasar Seni station, we saw a sea of people, attired in yellow, walking on the road from the National Mosque to the Palace. It was the large Bersih crowd, who seemed to have begun the procession much earlier than the announced time of 3.00pm. Very unusual for Malaysians to be early! We got down at the Masjid Jamek LRT station at around 2.50pm. As we came out, our eyes began tearing due to the tear gas hovering in the station. When we reached ground level, all we saw were police everywhere – some in their trucks, some holding glass shields, some holding guns, others holding batons – and hardly any demonstrators around.
As we were already so near Dataran Merdeka, we decided to walk towards it. As we passed Masjid Jamek on the south side of Jalan Tun Perak, we noticed a huge crowd inside the mosque grounds not being allowed to come out by a large and threatening group of police personnel with their shields and batons. We walked past the mosque along Jalan Tun Perak towards Dataran Merdeka. We learnt later that the large crowd that had gathered at Jalan Tun Perak had been tear-gassed and sprayed with water laced with toxic chemicals about half an hour before we arrived. I suppose some of them must have dispersed or were trapped in the Masjid Jamek grounds, unable to join the procession moving towards Istana.
Surprisingly, when we walked through the police barriers near the old Dewan Bandaraya building, nobody stopped the two of us. Perhaps we looked like two lost tourists from South Asia. The fact that we were not wearing yellow must have helped. Dataran Merdeka was empty except for the large police presence. It was eerie to see Dataran Merdeka virtually empty on a Saturday afternoon except for the police and a few people who appeared to be from the media.
Anyway, we passed by the Sultan Abdul Samad building and then headed towards Pasar Seni. There were scores of people with their distinctive yellow Bersih T-shirts walking towards the palace. We joined them. It was raining lightly and both of us were quite drenched in spite of our umbrellas.
As we were walking, we saw a bunch of young men acting like traffic police controlling the marchers. They helped us to cross the roads safely and made sure we were not obstructing the traffic. We were initially a bit puzzled because they were wearing not yellow but maroon shirts with the word ‘AMAL’. We found out that these were Pas members who were there to help in crowd control. I thought to myself: While Umno is promoting Mat Rempits, Pas is training the youth to do a socially more useful function. How ironic!
Choppers drown out speeches
We soon reached the huge crowd of Bersih supporters who were on the road leading to the palace. The crowd was very well behaved. The Unit Amal chaps in fact had formed a human chain a couple of metres away from the police barrier, made up of police personnel with shields and batons. In this way the, organisers of the procession ensured that none of the Bersih supporters came near the police, thus avoiding any untoward incident. It was still drizzling, but the crowd was patient and good humoured.
By the time we reached the palace, we heard a delegation of Bersih leaders had already gone into the palace grounds to hand in the petition. So we, along with the rest of the peaceful crowd, were just sitting down waiting for the delegation to return. Meanwhile, a couple of police helicopters clattered over the crowd for a while before leaving.
Soon we heard some cheering. Then, Pas president Ustaz Hadi was hoisted over the shoulders of some of his supporters. He used a loud-hailer to tell the crowd that the petition had been delivered and congratulated the Bersih supporters for their peaceful behaviour. At this point, the two police helicopters reappeared over our heads. Saudara Anwar Ibrahim, the Keadilan advisor, was then hoisted on somebody’s shoulders and handed the loud-hailer. A loud round of applause rippled through the crowd. He too gave a brief speech which we could not hear due to the noise from the helicopters hovering overhead.
Immediately after that, someone claiming to be the KL police chief used his loud sound-system mounted on a police truck asking the crowd to disperse in five minutes. Since we were on the outer fringes of the crowd, we had to move. We noticed that the crowd dispersed peacefully walking back towards KL town. One wonders whether the helicopters were ordered back deliberately to disrupt the speeches.
We walked back to the Pasar Seni LRT station. The Unit Amal guys were still in action, this time ensuring that there was an orderly dispersal of the crowd. While walking back, we met another group of Bersih supporters walking enthusiastically towards the palace. They did not seem disheartened when told that the memorandum has been handed over to palace officials and the participants were now returning. This group may have been part of the larger group that was not allowed to leave the Masjid Jamek premises earlier.
We reached the Pasar Seni station after 4.00pm. We were in for a rude shock: the LRT station doors were closed. Nobody was allowed to enter or exit at the station. At the station we met fellow Aliran members Theresa Lim Chin Chin and David Anthony. From them and others around there, we gathered that shortly before 3.00pm, the Masjid Jamek and Pasar Seni stations had been closed to prevent more Bersih supporters joining the rally. Now, by their very actions, they were preventing the smooth dispersal of the crowd!
While we were discussing the authorities’ stupidity, the station gates were opened. After some delay in buying the tickets, we boarded the train and arrived at the Bangsar LRT station safely. We got into our car and headed home.
When we were near the Sprint highway toll booth, we saw a massive traffic jam on the opposite side of the road. It was caused by the same police check-point that we had passed through earlier in the afternoon. The police personnel were still looking for Bersih supporters. Somebody up in Bukit Aman obviously forgot to tell these poor personnel on duty that the protest march was over!!
All in all, we came home feeling delighted that we had participated in an important event in the history of civil society in Malaysia.