Viewpoint: There Stood Malaysians

The days leading up to the BERSIH rally were one of tense anticipation with many parties issuing ultimatums and threats.

The mainstream newspapers under the control of the ruling party had given a lot of public space to fringe elements in Malaysian society to disparage BERSIH, Madam Ambiga and even to issue veiled threats against the Public at large.

The newspapers ran spectacular stories of an “Anwar plot” to divert attention away from his hearing, then it was a Communist plot to overthrow the government, then a Christian plot against the government, then later parangs and Molotov cocktails linked to BERSIH were “found”, then there was the “foreign destabilizing element”, then it was a Jewish plot to take over the country – none of which evidence was shown.

In the list of plots published, one wonders how the Communist could work with the Christians keeping in mind that Pope John Paul II was an arch enemy of the Soviet Empire who saw religion as a grave threat to its own existence. One is also reminded of the height of panic in the Eastern block in 1979 when the late Pope John Paul II preached to 3 million Polish people chanting “We want God!, We want God!”.

All the “plots” reminds one of the propaganda machines of the late Soviet Union that created an unwarranted fear of the United States and “the West” in order to keep its own population in check. We understand that such propaganda now only survives in reclusive and embattled North Korea.

Against the marshalled forces and institutions that had been corrupted to serve the interest of a minority was the quiet resolve of ordinary Malaysians to tell their government to reform.

The issue of reform of the electoral system was a political issue that could have easily been diffused with a conciliatory government accepting the recommendations and working to improve the electoral system. Even if the changes took place slowly, acceptance of what was undeniable a correct position would have diffused the entire matter politically.

To the shock of Malaysians, Putrajaya decided to reject BERSIH’s demands and in doing so cast themselves as refusing electoral reform and defending what was to most right thinking Malaysians an indefensible position as siding corrupt practices in the electoral system.

Then there was the offer for the Merdeka Stadium – which most Malaysians saw as being the offer by His Majesty the Agong and the Prime Minister. This was what most Malaysians saw as a diplomatic olive branch of reaching a negotiated settlement with BERSIH. Most Malaysians welcomed this as a welcome change to the chest beating and public threats issued by an unknown martial arts club.

To the shock of Malaysians, the Home Minister decided to retract the offer of the Stadium after it had been accepted by BERSIH. This shocked most right thinking Malaysians who saw it as a breach of public trust and a diplomatic disaster. The Home Minister’s actions had also been seen as “torpedoing” both the Prime Minister and His Majesty the Agong on the diplomatic fronts.

With both the political and diplomatic “bridges” burnt by Putrajaya and sensing that the potato had become too hot, Putrajaya then abdicated its role on Friday 08/07/2011 to the Police and seeking that the Police deal with essentially a political and diplomatic problem with the only tool available to the Police - the use of force.

The lines had been drawn. The die had been cast.

A heavy cloud of fear and uncertainty hung over Malaysians. As a lawyer it disturbed me that the Government would abdicate its political and diplomatic role to an institution of government (Police) having no such tools to deal with what essentially was a political and diplomatic issue. With Putrajaya’s abdication and the assumption of almost martial law on the city centre of Kuala Lumpur on the night of 08/07/2011, one could only assume that force and violence would ensue. 

I could not stop the forces that had brought Malaysians to this point. I could not stop the blunders that had brought Putrajaya to having to fire on its citizens. Since I could not stop it, I decided to attend as an observer under the Malaysian BAR and to double up to protect the younger lawyers who had decided to go.

Armed with a camera and quite a lot of first aid equipment, I took my place in the line of observers and set out.

What I saw on 09/07/2011 was a sea of Malaysians coming out to march on the street. They had come against all odds. They had come despite the threats of violence against them. There were the old and the young, the richer and the poorer. They had come from all corners of Malaysia. There were some from Sabah, and the Sarawakians came fully decked with traditional gear. Hornbill feather hats stood out amongst the crowd as did the Sarawak flag. There were people speaking in Kelantanese and those saying they were from Kedah asking for directions. There were the able bodied and there were the less able bodied.

All had come.

Like the students at Prague in 1956 seeking freedom and democracy against the Soviet Union, Malaysians chanted and sang, blew bubbles and played the guitar. They marched and they walked, they swaggered and swayed. Some stopped to sweep the sidewalks on Petaling Street in quiet symbolism on the day. At Maybank, Malaysians cheered the arrival of other bodies of Malaysians marching to join them. What a street party it was.

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But the party came to an end when the Malaysian Federal Reserve Unit, rolled in and fired on the crowd. Volley after volley of gas shots rang out, barrage after barrage of chemically laced water cannons followed, baton charge after baton charge to clear a resolute Malaysian people.

Smarting, crying, vomiting were the scenes immediately after the bombardment. As they had come in solidarity with one another to celebrate Malaysia and demand electoral reforms from their government, they now cried together and suffered untold hardships together. One had died, others had been beaten and most fled but they did so with a reaffirmed faith in their Malaysian brothers and sisters with whom they had rejoiced and suffered together on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. As much as the tear gas had dispersed Malaysians, Malaysians had become bound together in solidarity against the tyranny subjected against them from their own government.

I stood in amazement and I stood transfixed. Unbelieving that Malaysians would have the resolve to walk in the face of injustice and force. But they walked nevertheless. Bombardment after bombardment, Malaysians withdrew, formed up and marched again.

My role had come to an end when I was called away to round up some of the Bar Council volunteers who had suffered terribly from tear gas along Jalan Tun Perak. We marched through the gun lines, rounded up our young volunteers and took them back. I had come in aid of the younger members of the Bar and I had fulfilled that pledge in a tiny way in the role I had to play in taking them back to the safety of the Bar.

There, we were met by scores of young children who were taking pictures in front of the banners bar council had put up commemorating the numerous deaths in police custody. They stood in amazement of the wet, bombed out volunteers returning from the “front”. They asked us excitedly about what had happened. They asked us who we were and why we did what we did.

We looked at them, smiled and simply said “We are lawyers”.

Looking back I am reminded that in the face of all the force and fear that the Soviet Union mustered at the height of the cold war, Pope John Paul II preached to the Polish people and to humanity of faith in what was right and that we, “be not afraid”.

In that faith, the entire force of fear had been disarmed and dismantled. I believe that Malaysians had found that faith in some measure on that day.

By Daniel.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Catholic Lawyers Society Kuala Lumpur. CLS makes no representation concerning, and does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view presented.

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