Before I begin…
I wanted to be all journalist-y and analyst-y to analyse the situation from all angles. But I couldn’t. Firstly, I was too slow – analyses mushroomed everywhere as I tried to comprehend what happened that day. One type of “Bersih 3.0″ on Google and every other news site, blogger, and any participant with a straighter head than I do have given their accounts on how peaceful (or how it should have been peaceful). So my thoughts, penned on brown paper, will not see light of the day due to lack of essay arrangement on my part.
Except this very small excerpt:
Last year, Bersih KL were gathered with one sole purpose: to show the government that the people care about voter fraud and want some changes to the electoral system. But this year, it seemed different, the moods started off peaceful and festive in some sectors. Other sectors however, had procession and chants that were not according to the cause. The presence of politicians and their hardcore supporters made people uneasy.
It was also last year After Bersih 2.0 that we saw pockets of small movements trying to address concerns of their city, KL, but the authorities ignored them. This then breeds resentment, dangerously putting the Bersih movement into jeopardy and be branded an anti-government protest. There are resentment from Jalan Sultan traders that may see their old-age buildings and roads demolished because of the MRT project, even after promises of alternative routes will be studied, There are resentment from university students on student loan burdens and not getting the best quality of education. You have the group that are very against processing rare earth plant for the environmental harm it may caused to the community. You have other small movements, who, no matter how loud they spoke, they could never gain the attention they needed. These movements gathered together to form a very big movement, thus, Bersih KL became the mother of all resentments.
Granted, it’s mixed with other supporters whose only intent was to show dissatisfaction. But the resentment is real. And all it takes was the government authorities of Kuala Lumpur’s ignorance to previous problems to see this descend into the chaos as we know it today.
There’s Activism, and There’s Artivism
I would trace my Bersih 3.0 journey back to a day earlier, when my friend, PL, was wondering what we can do to make the whole thing feel more festive. And there I go, gently poking her with “Erm…Pinwheels?”
Immediately PL was hooked to the idea, and so off I go to buy the materials. And spent the next four hours working like factory workers, with one in charge of cutting the paper, one in charge of marking the paper, one in charge of folding the perfectly squared papers into a fan and then pinning them into satay sticks. Occasionally we liked testing it out to see if the pinwheels worked whenever the wind blows. It brought the child in all of us as we blow the pinwheels.
But PL and I never met up until later into the rally. We separated due to traffic jam issues. By traffic jam issues, we meant that we’re surrounded by Malaysians who all also thought the same as us – take the train early, be there in Bersih (translation: Clean) or Himpunan Hijau (translation: Green Rally) T-shirts, and start showing up at the barricades. My group went together and we observed the situation, it was festive: there were rhythmic drums with chants of “Power to the People!”, with Occupy Dataran showing up, chanting “Who’s Square? Our Square!” as we see how our Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), got cordoned off with razor wires.
The pinwheels were all with PL, and by the time we met, she said she had given out most of them. She kept some for us to play it. I got a faulty one because I thought it wasn’t nice to give that out.
We were waiting under the hot sun for the longest time, listening to the people yelling many kinds of insults to the police just across the river. We didn’t joined in. And being journalists (as we always do), we tried to keep up to date with Twitter. My line was jammed, congested; I couldn’t send out tweets for almost four hours, while PL’s were working well, and I glanced through tweets through her phone.
Suddenly, we saw gushes and gushes of chemical water sprayed at the other sector of Dataran Merdeka. Immediately the people from our side boo-ed the police. I yelled “How could you do this?!?!”, while PL showed her thumbs down and keep saying “Boo Police! Boo!!”. We let our emotions ran at that moment, but we also sensed something wrong with the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) of our sector. We ran off, and we saw crowds all coming out from the other sector, eyes red, swollen, coughing and gasping for air. I stood there, holding my faulty pinwheel up high, letting the strong wind spin the fragile paper pinwheel, until it fell to the ground.
I didn’t managed to retrieve it again. I was trying to get away from the tear gasses that attacked for the next few minutes, as we desperately try to run away from the suffocating combination of chemicals and pepper.
Feeling horrified and hopeful
The horror stories reached us as we try to find a way home. Reports of journalists and photographers getting attacked worried me. Reports of a turned over police car, of injured protesters, of a police mob whacking anyone with a yellow shirt were met with chills. As the group converged. We reflected, we exchanged stories. We want to know what’s wrong.
I was tired and emotional, and I stupidly clicked on the video of how the police car got crashed. I couldn’t shake off that moment when the police car hit the wall. I burst into tears a few times due to emotional pressure.
But I turned to other sites to see the other Bersih 3.0 proceedings that happened in other cities, and other global cities. They were so peaceful and so cheerful. I felt relieved, and very determined to say, that one city’s chaos shouldn’t dampened the efforts of other cities to make their voices heard. The cause is not entirely lost on the others. The overseas voters’ demand are still valid, the demand to clean up the electoral roll are still valid. The cause, in its overall mission, are still valid.
A few friends know this: I was ready to leave Malaysia by this year or next year, either to pursue my graduate studies or to work as a journalist, somewhere, elsewhere, anywhere, but here.
I was very disappointed at how the situation deteriorated and was seeking a way out. I need answers, but they can’t be found here. People were getting increasingly and annoyingly partisan, the online commentators can’t differentiate between what’s blind support and what’s right. Religion, race, and culture are being used to silence others. The middle ground was slowly disintegrating and the rational ones were booed, while the extremists get their media highlights.
So what changed after attending Bersih 3.0? I think the idea of seeing how the glimmer was in people’s eyes as they walked down the streets, happy to be able to peacefully assemble under the Peaceful Assembly Act and openly showing a defiance to a government, which in the process, made them empowered and hopeful.
Some people said “blood needed to be shed to see real change”. I beg to differ. I don’t want to see blood shed the way the Arab Spring had their martyrs’ blood shed. What Malaysia needs now is not martyrs, but rationality, reasoning, dialogue, and less communal politics. We’re a different sort of society. We can’t just adopt another society’s revolution into ours and said “Okay, so this is how a revolution should go!”
As forums after forums were organised, with average Malaysians voicing their offers to help spread the word of Bersih, despite the chaos, it was a moment that no political manipulation from both sides can ever achieve. The assaults on journalists have also resulted in black parades of black garments and yellow ribbons on World Press Freedom Day. I even sat down with an editor to discuss about what I might be able to contribute, and from the sounds of it, it looks good. I feel like it is a good time being a journalist in Malaysia again.
This is no Arab Spring. No, if you really have to coin it, let it be a Malaysian, or even a Southeast Asian Storm.
Why a storm? Because the storm seemed to be the only natural phenomenon that inflicts all of us in Southeast Asia. As the winds of change blows, it’s not just felt in Malaysia; it’s felt throughout the region. People are now questioning the aging administration, what have they done wrong, and why are their freedoms limited.
And Malaysia has whipped up the Perfect Storm in the form of Bersih 3.0. People will keep the momentum and pressure on the institutions, demanding the answers. Now is the time for the institutions to take appropriate action in resolving the issues, not aggravating the situation further.