In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate; blessings and peace be upon Prophet Muhammad s.a.w.
"Do not spy on one another,
nor let any of you backbite others..." (Hujurat 49:12)
DEMOCRACY is not something that happens, you know, just at election time, and it's not something that happens just with one event. It's an ongoing building process. But it also ought to be a part of our culture, a part of our lives. - Jim Hightower
We had witnessed Bersih 1.0. It was in November 2007. Then, last Saturday (9th July) it was Bersih 2.0. And based on the interpretation of democracy by Jim Hightower, I would not be surprised if there would be Bersih 3.0, Bersih 4.0, Bersih 5.0 and so on.
But wait, before jumping to that conclusion, let us move back to last Saturday 'high noon drama' in the heart of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. First of all, what is Bersih? It is a Malay acronym for 'Gabungan Pilihan Raya Bersih dan Adil' (Coalition for a Clean and Fair Election).
Bersih, which means 'clean' in Malay, is a coalition of Malaysian non government organizations (NGOs) and Opposition political parties with the stated aim of reforming the electoral process in the country. It is not about to topple the BN government as stressed several times by its president Amiga Sreenevasan. She also said during the earlier stages of its formation, parties in the BN had also been invited to join Bersih but they declined.
Specifically, Bersih demands the for the use of permanent ink to ensure that voters may only vote once, a clean out of the electoral rolls to remove entries that are no longer valid such as deceased people, the abolition of postal votes on the basis that they are easily abused, introducing a minimum 21-day campaign period, strengthening public institutions, stopping corruption, putting an end to dirty politics and demanding that all candidates and political parties have equal access to print and broadcast media.
Looking at the list; there was nothing 'scary' about Bersih’s demands. They only want a fair and clean election; so when their request were not properly handle by the authorities; for example the usage of permanent ink was made into an issue when in fact such ink had been bought before but was not used, Bersih’s leaders and supporters decided to take the matter into the streets.
So they fixed the date; it was that Saturday, 9th July. Unfortunately Bersih’s noble intention was met with fierce resistance by those in power. They turned to the security forces to frustrate the gathering after labeling the movement a ‘haram’ (unlawful) one. On that fateful day, the police manned roadblocks on major roads leading to the city and in the city itself they closed roads leading into the city centre.
In the morning after ‘subuh’ (dawn) prayers at a masjid, I took a walk from Jalan Pahang to Kuala Lumpur Hospital. I saw police personnel manning roadblocks on the road leading to Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman and at the entrance of the Kuala Lumpur Hospital.
At about 9.00am, a friend who had a bike came to see me and then we both rode around Kuala Lumpur and we found out it was inaccessible to enter the city centre. We were stopped and asked to go to other destination when we arrived at police roadblocks at Chow Kit, on the road leading to Masjid Negara and on a road in Brickfields, leaading to Merdeka Stadium.
In Kampung Baru, we saw a police truck moving slowly on a main road. Tens of police personnel were seen in front of it, some of them entered ‘warung’ (stalls) on both sides of the road; questioning patrons and asked them to open up their bags. Those with yellow ‘Bersih’ T-shirts were ‘guided’ to the truck and were ‘helped’ inside it.
Our ‘motorbike mission’ had failed; we could not go into the city centre, what’s more to strategic locations such as Merdeka Stadium and Masjid Negara. We had a rest and at about 11.00am we tried our luck using the light train service. Earlier we were informed that the train services of monorail and LRT were suspended on that day, but we just tried our luck.
To our surprise the LRT still ran services, and in not more than 15 minutes time we were already in front of Masjid Jamek in the city centre. Seeing tight security by the police there, we moved to a road leading to Lebuh Ampang and upon seeing an Indian Muslim restaurant being opened, we delightedly stopped to have our lunch. It was full of patrons. Perhaps its owner was enjoying one of his good days in business.
About 12.00 noon, as we were about to leave the restaurant, I heard loud commotion and people running on the road in front of the restaurant. They seemed to be running from the direction of Central Market. Then I saw plumes of tear gas, even though I was quite far off, I could feel irritation on my skin and a stingy feeling in my nose.
A few minutes later, the crowd grouped again and proceed along Jalan Tun HS Lee (if I was not wrong) and marched into Jalan Sultan; heading for the Merdeka Stadium. To my surprise, from the many lanes in the areas, people joined the rally and when the procession stopped in Jalan Sultan, I looked back; I guess the attendees might be more than 10,000 people.
They were from all walks of life; Malays, Chinese, Indians and even several men in traditional Iban costumes. The few ‘mat salihs’ (white people, thought to be tourists) were also having good time; snapping pictures, talking and sharing jokes with the locals. I also saw a few handicapped people in their wheelchairs; they too tried not to miss the historic walk for a ‘bersih’ (clean) election.
So it was a peaceful historic walk by the people of all races to show their commitment to a clean election. It had nothing to do with those wild accusation of certain top leaders of the country such as trying to topple the government or create chaos and anarchy. Could you believe those people in wheelchairs wanting to topple the government?
Jalan Sultan seemed a dead end for the ‘rakyat’. They had to turn back and walked to an open area in front of Menara Maybank in Jalan Tun Perak. There when the crowd settled down to hear encouraging words from Pakatan Rakyat leaders such as PAS Director for Elections, Dr Hatta Ramli; I climbed the hill slope to have a good look at the crown; I guessed the attendees exceeded 15,000 people.
For more than half an hour, the crowd was left alone; my friend and I were surprised as to why the police were not harassing the people for the moment. My friend suggested to me; “perhaps the police are now with the people!” I told him to be aware because there is a Malay proverb saying: “Air yang tenang jangan disangka tiada buaya” (don’t trust calm waters, there could be crocodiles in it).
I was right; at about 1.20pm the police started pounding tear gas canisters into the crowd. Then the people were showered with water laced with chemical that irritates ones skin. The people ran like mad, I too ran up the slopes and stopped at a fountain to wash my face. A youth offered me a little amount of salt which I put under my tongue; it works!
I saw many men struggling to climb a high fence of the Maybank compound. In my opinion they could not do it under normal circumstances, but during such desperade condition; they had no time to think about it. A few men collided with a group of people saying their prayers (solat) on the green lawn of the Maybank building.
After the effects of the tear gas had subsided I saw a ‘mat salih’ girl with her clothes almost down, walking up and down aimlessly on the grass lawn of Maybank. Perhaps she had lost contact with her companions when the authorities rained the people with tear gas and water laced with chemicals. Perhaps this rare experience in Kuala Lumpur she would not forget for the rest of her life!
Then it rained cats and dogs to the relief of the people on the street. The ‘acid atmosphere’ quickly vanished; the ‘rakyat’ who had run for their life, had a second opportunity to gather back and marched to Merdeka Stadium!