Bersih Stories: A Display of the People’s Spirit

On the 9th of July 2011, over tens of thousands of Malaysians came together united to rally for a clean and fair election. Max Koh, a journalist with The Edge Financial Daily shares his experience on that fateful day.

When I volunteered to cover the Bersih 2.0 rally on the eve of the event, I felt an equal sense of excitement and trepidation. 

I was excited because the rally has gathered a momentum not seen before, with increasing support from the public. But I was also fearful as certain quarters alluded to the possibility of rioting and mob violence. 

The night before, I read up on the precautions and measures to take before going for the rally. I packed salt (which was easier to carry than toothpaste and cheaper), some Snickers bars, a towel, a water bottle and a change of clothes. I took note of what to do in case I was detained by the police. 

I also deliberated on my choice of attire. I had to wear a neutral colour that did not link me to any particular movement or political party. So instead of red, yellow, blue, green or purple, I wore black. 

When the time arrived on July 9, a few journos and I decided to take the LRT and alight at KL Sentral. It was 10am. After a hearty breakfast at McDonald’s, we decided to walk towards Stadium Merdeka but were stopped by policemen at a petrol station in Brickfields. 

When I flashed my media tag, the inspector merely said: “Sorry, media is also not allowed anywhere near the stadium. If you want to go in, you can take the LRT down to Pasar Seni”. 

From the LRT train, we could see pockets of people gathering in front of the old railway station. The scene was similar on the grounds of the Pasar Seni LRT station. Policemen were stationed in front of Central Market but there were no signs of arrests or disturbances.

Many shops were closed except for a small store and a 7-11 outlet which were doing brisk business. What struck me was that people lined up in an orderly manner to pay for their drinks. No one was pushing or looting. The store on its part did not hike up its prices and sold mineral water at RM1. McDonald’s was also open for business and was packed with people. Then, we heard cries in the distance. “Hidup, Hidup, Hidup Rakyat. Reformasi!” (Long live the people! Reformation!) As the chants grew louder, we saw thousands of people walking from the railway station. We joined in, as the group marched towards Dataran Merdeka. We were stopped by a police barricade there. At one point, the group broke into Negaraku. As soon as the singing stopped, the police fired tear gas into the crowd. 

As advised by my friends, I came prepared. The tear gas stung my eyes and nose but it was not as bad as I had expected. The group soon retreated towards the old railway station. We followed at the tail-end as they marched towards Petaling Street.

We then reached the Puduraya and Menara Maybank  junction where thousands were gathered. I noticed that the crowd had a good mix of races, all conversing with each other. The FRU and policemen had barricaded the road in front of Menara Maybank.

A group of Muslims was seen praying on the street. My colleague even managed to buy ice cream from a nearby vendor. 

Then a bell rang and tear gas was fired. I was caught in the middle of this round. The tear gas stung my eyes as I struggled to cover my face with a towel. I choked as I tried to run away as more tear gas was fired at us. At a safe distance, I ate some salt and tried to catch my breath. At this time, it began to drizzle. 

The protesters were then instructed by their leaders to sit down peacefully. They chanted “Hidup Hidup, Hidup Rakyat”. No one was seen provoking the police. 

No one hurled stones at them. Then the tear gas came again. This time, it really hurt and I struggled to eat salt as I ran down the road towards Jalan Bukit Bintang. 

The rain poured even more heavily. We saw the police barricade in front of us and realised we were trapped from both ends. Some of the crowd took shelter in Tung Shin Hospital, while some of us ran to a dead-end road to take shelter from the rain and regain our strength. By this time, our group of five journalists had been separated from one another. My phone battery had died and I stopped sending live updates to my editor. 

In the midst of the chaos, I saw strangers sharing salt and drinking water. People warned one another about potholes. A young man placed a balloon on a pothole as a warning to others.

In the brief moment of respite, another journo and I decided to take shelter at Tung Shin Hospital, thinking that the police would not fire into the hospital. We were wrong. 

Within the Tung Shin compound, I was hit the hardest by the tear gas. It burned my esophagus and eyes. I felt I was on the verge of passing out. Somehow, I managed to eat some salt. At this time, I was thinking about giving up. 

At about 3.40pm, some Bersih leaders were seen negotiating with the police to allow the crowd to disperse peacefully and march peacefully along the road. 

After 20 minutes of negotiations, Subang MP Sivarasa Rasiah was arrested, and tear gas and water cannon were shot. This time, the police entered Tung Shin Hospital to arrest people. 

By 4pm, people began to disperse. For those who criticise Bersih for being an uncivil gathering, I witnessed nothing but civil acts of kindness, peace, love and solidarity among Malaysians.

There were no rabble-rousers looking for a fight. I did not witness anyone hurling insults at the police or doing anything to provoke them. Instead of parangs or molotov cocktails, I saw people holding flowers and Malaysian flags. 

When the police shot tear gas at the crowd, I only saw people helping one another. A middle-aged Malay woman covered a Chinese friend’s head with her tudung. A man bravely ran to cover the tear gas cannisters. 

There are many people’s personal accounts of the Bersih 2.0 rally on Twitter and other social media. 

For me, what I witnessed at the Bersih rally was a story of tenacity, bravery, solidarity, kindness, civility and hope.

A Display of the People’s Spirit [The Edge]

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