Uniformed police officers scanned the incoming crowd as I walked into the Ampang LRT station in the mid-morning of 9 July 2011.
Several yellow-shirted people were immediately accosted and told to turn back. Luckily, I had worn a non-yellow T-shirt as a precaution, keeping my yellow T in my backpack.
I managed to slip through without coming under suspicion, which was surprising. If I were a thinking police officer, I would surely have wondered, why would anyone want to enter the Kuala Lumpur city centre when it was under total lockdown ahead of the biggest mass rally in recent years, other than to join the said mass rally?
I got off the train at the Plaza Rakyat station, the closest stop to the rally site we were allowed to alight. The rally had several meeting points – Bukit Bintang, Sogo Mall at Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the National Mosque and Petaling Street – that would eventually converge in the area around the Pudu bus terminal.
Police officers were at the Plaza Rakyat station, but they didn’t stop us from joining the burgeoning sea of people already amassing outside. I was by myself, so I decided to walk around and take stock of the surroundings.
I made my way to the Petaling Street area and – what a sight to behold! It was already teeming with Malaysians from all walks of life. I have never seen so many Malaysians in all their diversity come out in full force, unified by a common cause.
What courage it took for the rally-goers to defy the government’s stern orders not to attend the gathering. Just a week earlier, the then-Home Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, declared Bersih 2.0 as a “pertubuhan haram” (illegal organisation) and by extension, the rally to be a “perhimpunan haram” (illegal gathering). The government promised harsh measures against those who dared to attend the rally.
The government came through with its threat. Around noon, as the crowd gathered in front of the steps of Maybank Tower listening to speeches – I was among them – FRU riot police lined up to the left about 200m away near Masjid Jamek, their jackboots glistening under the blistering midday heat. The crowd completely ignored them and kept on cheering the speakers.
Suddenly, we heard a rumble as water cannon trucks rolled out towards the crowd in front of Maybank Tower. Without warning and completely unprovoked, the crew blasted chemical-laced water indiscriminately into the crowd. The water literally smelled like s*** and stung the skin.
Undeterred, the crowd regathered and apparently uncowed by the water cannon trucks.
The second wave of attacks on peaceful protesters soon followed. Riot police advanced and immediately launched volleys of tear gas cannisters into the crowd.
Though I had taken part in many street protests before, mainly in the US, it was my first time experiencing the pain inflicted by tear gas. My face, eyes and skin burned up violently as if I had just eaten a kilo of raw chilli padi in one sitting! I quickly washed my face with water and wrapped it with a damp bandana, which eventually ease the discomfort.
Around me, people were tending to others suffering from the tear gas effects. These were purely random acts of solidarity and kindness.
After what seemed like an eternity of bombardment, the tear gas-lobbing stopped. The crowd took respite next to the Pudu bus terminal facing Tung Shin Hospital. Many Malays, including Pas members, took advantage of the lull to perform their zuhur (afternoon) prayer on the asphalt.
Unbeknown to many of us, another FRU unit had been deployed at the other end of Jalan Pudu. They had trapped us in a pincer movement with no clear escape routes. It was the calm before the storm.
The tear gas volleys resumed, again unprovoked, but now they came from both ends of Jalan Pudu. We were sitting ducks, completely exposed to the FRU offensives. Some Malays were still in the middle of their prayers and got hit by the tear gas canisters. Never mind that most of the FRU members were also Malay Muslims.
Many of us, me included, escaped into the premises of the Tung Shin Hospital seeking a haven. Surely the FRU would not direct their fire into the hospital – or so we thought. But riot police lobbed tear gas canisters into the hospital compound with such reckless abandon. It was a gross violation of the Geneva Convention that bans attacks on hospitals during conflicts.
I climbed out of the hospital compound and found myself back on Jalan Pudu again. I scanned the surroundings for a possible escape route amid the thick acrid white smoke.
As I stood there, out of the blue, a Malay guy in his late 20s, beckoned me to follow him. “Bro, jom pergi sana. Macam ada jalan keluar” (Bro, let’s go over there. Looks like there’s a way out), as he pointed toward a row of nondescript grey buildings to the left.
We headed there and found that an opening in a building led all the way to the back alley. Still not feeling completely safe from the FRU, we walked the winding back alleys until we reached Jalan Nagasari, near Istana Hotel (recently closed).
We were famished, so we stopped by at a mamak place that was brave enough to open that day. There, I learned that my new companion’s name was Amri, and he worked for an international NGO based in KL. We met up a few times after the rally but have lost contact since. I wonder where he is now.
I finally reached home at around 7pm, much to the relief of my parents as they heard police had arrested over 1,600 rally goers.
After failing to fully scrubb off the stench of the chemical-laced water, which also left a bluish tint on my skin, I sat down and wrote a short article refuting the government’s false claims about the Bersih 2.0 rally. It was certainly a day well spent!
This Bersih rally ten years ago, in my mind, was the pivotal moment when a critical mass of people found the courage to challenge the entrenched establishment and believed that change was possible. It was a movement that united people over a common cause despite all their differences.
Bersih 2 also opened up democratic space as the government realised it was no longer enough to use brute force to suppress dissent as it would only anger the public and spur more people into opposition. The seismic change ultimately came on 9 May 2018, when the long-ruling Barisan Nasional regime finally bit the dust.
But the hard work of grassroots mobilisation continues, now more than ever as the country suffers from the whims of an incompetent and cruelly callous Perikatan Nasional government that enjoys no mandate from the people. The struggle goes on.