On April 28 2012, approximately 250,000 Malaysians descended on Kuala Lumpur (KL) to be a part of Bersih 3.0, one of the biggest protest movements the region has ever seen.
The protestors that came to KL were made up of 2 distinct groups: The Bersih and the Stop Lynas movements. The Lynas group was primarily there to protest the Lynas rare earth plant being set up in Kuantan (link) while Bersih was primarily motivated by the quest for clean elections in the country. Both groups came together for Bersih 3.0 for an apolitical common goal: To demand clean and fair elections from their government and the underlying implication that the people deserve and insist on proper representation within the annals of government.
The streets of KL, specifically the streets around Dataran Merdeka (the no entry zone), were already packed with revelers for the official Bersih start time of noon on April 28th. The overall atmosphere was one of genuine fun. Everyone, even the police presence, was all wearing smiles. Demonstrators were celebrating their love for their country by being decked out in the colors of their national flag and breaking into songs such as Gelang and the national anthem. The entire scene felt like an episode of Glee minus the elaborate dance numbers and costumes.
But beneath the joyous expression for democracy there was a sense of foreshadowing felt. At about 1pm, all cell phone signals into the Dataran Merdeka and Jalan Tun Perak area failed. All communications in and out of the area were cut off. Police helicopters and Paragliders were circling the air, acting as spotters for their comrades on the ground, who incidentally were gathering en mass within Dataran Merdeka. The air was tinged with lightning and the police were on edge. They were visibly preparing for something that the observant knew was coming.
At 2 pm, politicians from the Malaysian opposition began arrive; Rolling out to the outskirts of Dataran Merdeka to address the crowd and their supporters with their pretty speeches and rails against the incumbent government. It was a hijacking in progress. What began as a peaceful non political grassroots movement to demand for clean national elections was being turned into a pandering session designed to stoke up anger against the Barison National government. And there were plenty of those present in the crowd, ready and eager to have an outlet for their rage.
At approximately 3pm, the first teargas volleys were fired. Witnesses and video footage of the scene allege that an opposition politician had instigated agent provocateurs within the crowd to charge at the barricade that prevented entry into Dataran Merdeka. This provocation gave the police an excuse to begin a systematic crackdown. The police began firing on the peacefully assembled demonstrators with the intent to disperse the crowd; despite the fact that the majority of the crowd had already started to file out and leave the epic center of the Bersih protest. The unsuspecting crowd on Jalan Tun Perak, which was about 1 kilometer down from Dataran Merdeka, was in the midst of leaving and was oblivious to the tear gas until the scent of pepper was detected the air around them. The crowd then panicked and people started shoving to flee the coming gas assault. Several people within the crowd fell as cries of 'Don't push' and 'Stay calm' were heard as the whiteout spread over them.
A few minutes later, after the white cloud dispersed to the winds, the demonstrators present began to help one another cope with the teargas effects. People were passing each other water and while checking for injuries. The street was strewn with shoes and other items that were separated from their owners during the initial panic, but miraculously, there was no stampede and no one was gravely wounded.
Then the police entered the fray. Like storm troopers from a movie scene, the riot police walked in single file along Jalan Tun Perak armed with batons, riot shields and firing more tear gas at the dazed demonstrators. For their part, the demonstrators refused to engage in violent confrontation with the riot police. Many of the Bersih protestors chose to lock arms and sit down as police bared down upon them. None of them fought back as the police clubbed them and dragged them away for detention. The media and members of the Malaysian Bar council bore silent witness as they watched the police beat their own people. And even they were not spared from the wrath of the police. Some officers later attacked media personnel and shoved lawyers from the bar council members for simply staying on the sidelines and observing the transpiring situation.
This is terrible. I remarked amidst the chaos.
Yes. There is no pride in beating your own people.î replied an anonymous Catholic priest who was observing the proceedings with the media.
The crackdown lasted for over 1 hour. The police unleashed a water cannon and fired more tear gas at protestors who stood by the principle of non violent resistance. At one point there was a standoff between the police and the crowd when the police chased fleeing protestors into a nearby mosque. The entire police squad stood at the gates looking into the crowd who gathered at the mosque. Both sides were unwilling to be the first to desecrate the sanctuary of hollowed ground. The police chose to be prudent and backed off, turning around to focus on the group of protestors that was on the police's opposite flank.
Fighting only erupted after 4 pm when agitators decided they wanted to pick a fight with the better armed police. The agitators threw projectiles such as bottles, rocks and shoes, daring the police to attack them. They were not disappointed. The police response was swift and brutal, too brutal as the Malaysian Bar council would point out later in their press conference. The government controlled spin cycle went into overtime, painting Bersih as a violent movement that was a source of national shame, much to the chagrin of Bersih supporters who cried foul.
But what really happened at Bersih 3.0? What happened was what I described to you to the best of my first hand knowledge from being at Bersih 3.0 in this account. The protest was and always will be a grassroots movement demanding clean and fair elections. It brought out the best in Malaysians who mostly kept the demonstration peaceful and made it into a celebration of their love for their country for the world to see. The police for the most part were doing their job, to enforce the law but they could have exercised a lot more restraint when they cracked down on the crowd. Whether there will be a Bersih 4.0 will depend on how the upcoming general elections in Malaysia go. But 2 things are abundantly clear:
1. The politicians need to stay out of Bersih. The very presence of the opposition at this Bersih turned the entire situation into a powder keg. If the politicians truly did care about Malaysia they would participate in Bersih from the sidelines and not actively use it as a platform to pontificate their cause to the voting public. Doing so only serves to cheapen the real meaning of the Bersih movement and gives the government an excuse to crackdown on demonstrators.
2. The Bersih movement will not simply fade away into the night until Malaysians are satisfied that they finally have a clean election that allows them to exercise their basic human right to proper democratic representation. This can only come about through proper reform in Malaysia. And outside observers can see change is coming to Malaysia. The only question is when.