So it’s June and I think it’s finally safe to talk about Bersih 3.0. My reluctance to address my attendance of the (supposed sit-in) demonstration had much to do with:
1) the politicisation of Bersih, which I am very tired of
2) the collective crazy of some participants.
I went to Bersih 3.0 for work, as a photographer. I was also supposed to be live-tweeting, but for whatever reasons (network flooded/rumoured mobile jammers), that did not work out at all. If I weren’t there for work, I would have been following updates of the rally from the safety of my home. Wearing my boxers. Eating Cheezels.
For Bersih 2.0, I had done my homework the night before. Gotten numbers of lawyers, bought my Good Morning towels, lil packets of salt, went with friends (and political tourists). Presumably had running shoes. When I was kettled in at Tung Shin Hospital, and tear-gassed, I had everything I needed to deal with it (and the relative comfort of knowing Kate, the Guardian journalist we were with, had witnessed the events).
For Bersih 3.0, my biggest preparation would have been an unplanned adventure the night before in Serdang, eating curry mee.
The next day, I took a train to KL Sentral to meet Kate, who was back in town to cover the Bersih rally again for Guardian. This time around, we were both sick as dogs and grumpy as hell about crowds, work obligations and the heat.
Malaysians, early for once.
I knew a huge crowd had already started gathering the night before — I had been in Dataran Merdeka, and somehow slipped behind the police barricades under some farce. Quite a few recognisable faces there, along with the Occupy Dataran crew (who soon had to pack up their stuff). Ahead of me, Pakatan supporters (mostly from PAS) were out in droves, flag waving, slogan-chanting. Felt much more like a political rally.
Malaysians love having the number 24 in their sial news. Rosmah's supposed RM24 million diamond ring, Liow Tiong Lai's RM24,000 license plate, or Teoh Beng Hock's death over alleged abuse of RM2,400. Pantang!
So I knew the official Bersih 3.0 would be hell crowded, and too political. Still, KL Sentral itself was alright. You could see the Bersih T-shirts speckled amongst the crowds, people taking group pictures. A few Lynas supporters. The train ride to Pasar Seni had two middle-aged men who made damn sure everyone else could hear their informed discussion on Bersih issues.
Central Market was so packed I couldn’t see who was onstage giving the speech. Nor could I hear anything being said. I asked around A LOT before I even figured out that it was Ambiga up front, surrounded by friends from the womens groups, possibly rallying the crowds.
Made our way to Masjid Jamek station, through the back of Pasar Seni where the police blockades were. The humidity was intense, and the crowd made it worse. There were some people sitting around here and there, but for the most part, I didn’t see many sitting down.
Polis, polis ‚ talked to some of them. Apparently the police force at Bersih had been given only half-rations from the night before, so they weren't in a great mood either, and prone to blaming protestors. Kate and I slipped through on the left.
Closer towards Masjid Jamek, where protestors were just milling about.
Kate and I were taking it easy at the sidewalks until an uproar started building up at the end of Masjid Jamek’s road. I knew then I had to get to work, so I forced my way to the middle of the road (and lost Kate). Years of partying in ridiculously packed nightclubs had given me the ability to elbow and boob my way through a crowd to *anyone*.
PAS Unit Amal guys started parting the crowd. I was in luck, it was Ambiga and Hishamuddin Rais. If I get pictures of them, I can go home, pop Panadols and have the day over and done with!
PAS Amal flers clearing the way for Ambiga, along with her bodyguards(?)
The first of one of the many times Ambiga would request rally participants be seated — I am still making my way towards her in this photo (before Nizar arrived)
Mostly lied my way past the PAS barricade (“Eh, I was inside just now, but got pushed out here” / “I’m with HER!” / “Angkat gambar, angkat gambar/ “I’ll leave right after”, etc), and made sure I was within a few feet of Ambiga.
All media persons out to get a good shot are vicious, merciless, and very rude. Kesian one of the womens’ NGO reps who got yelled at by a male photographer. “If you don’t want to be pushed, DON’T COME!”. It’s unfair, and I wanted to tell him off, but I was too light-headed by then to do anything but survive the heat and the pushing (my feet lifted off the ground a few times).
Another uproar — desposed Perak MB Nizar Jamaluddin had joined us, with his wife and young daughter.
Children — good for political mileage. Eating chocolates for energy.
Ambiga made her speech, I got my pictures. Of Ambiga, Hisham Rais, steering committee members Subramaniam and Andrew Khoo, and NGO people accompanying them. Nizar and family. I realised after the rally that Sze Ning was only a few feet away from me, but in the sea of people it would have been a minor miracle to see her. At this point, a man had been intentionally prodding and shoving my back — he was clearly out to antagonise and harass me, but stopped when I turned around just to observe more about him. Felt a bit uncomfortable that someone was out to make me lose my temper (he was standing near the PAS Amal guys, and had found a comfortable-ish spot where he didn’t need more space, but was reaching out just to push my shoulders).
They had wanted all of us to “duduk” while the speeches were being made, which would have been another minor miracle if possible, given how packed the crowd was where I had been. I have no talent for squatting, much less in that increasingly dizzying heat. I awkwardly hovered a lil bit, and photographed Nizar since I had somehow been turned around from Ambiga to face him.
PAS Amal guy making sure everyone is quiet for the speeches — most can't hear Ambiga anwyay
Then the best moment of Bersih happened: Ambiga declared the Bersih 3.0 rally a success and asked us to disperse.
“Yay, I can go home as soon as some of the crowd around me moves away!”
Of course, if that happened, Bersih 3.0 wouldn’t be the sensationalised political ammo for BN that it is today. Why didn’t someone just make Ambiga a huge “GO HOME” placard?
Then, an even bigger uproar than before.
“Dear god, today is never going to end”.
Kit Siang and Anwar joined the platform (I think it was a truck?) that Ambiga and Hisham Rais’ team were already on.
"Oh, fucking aces."
At one point, I had turned to the PAS Amal guy struggling to hold the line near me.
Lainie: I’m not being paid enough to work here.
PAS Amal dude: Saya volunteer.
When Anwar’s political speech was done, and the truck pulled away, I resumed my business of trying to get out of there. My stomach was growling, and I could no longer tell if I was weak from the humidity (was already drenched in sweat by then), hunger or fever. Either way, I was in no condition to layan a crowd.
Part of the crowd that had dispersed. Many were just recuperating in the sparse shades found under the young trees between Pasar Seni and Masjid Jamek
Walked to Pasar Seni, trying to find Kate. Stumbled upon a huge gathering of people who had probably missed the order to disperse (I learnt later that though the likes of The Star tweeted the news, they were treated as malicious misinformation by gung-ho assholes*). The police trucks were there, and lines of officers.
*already very grumpy
I stood near the officers and took some photographs. They were clearly just posing as an intimidation tactic at the time, doing military-esque lineups, getting inspected, assuming battle stances. Protestors were starting to remove the barricades.
Barricades being removed. The ones who took the lead were middle-aged men, but everyone else followed suit soon enough. Like gotong-royong.
Police doing one of their many formations
Some guys with Occupy Dataran poster, beginning the sit-in protest in front of the cops.
Took some shots and left because I didn’t want anything to happen, and I certainly didn’t want to be around huge groups of people and police trucks after the dispersal order.
Police officers putting on gas masks and loading up tear gas guns— ie: time to go.
Central Market was all barricaded, so I had to take the pedestrian bridge. Trembled my whole way across, took quite a few breaks. I very nearly blacked out on my slow walk to the front of Pasar Seni. I was too tired to even pour water on my head, though the heat was quite nuts by then. I was hearing a faint buzzing. I think I only kept going out of sheer stubbornness and dislike for crowds.
At the bottom of the bridge, I stopped to catch my breath. Drink some water. Curse myself. A minute in, I hear the familiar booming sounds of tear gas canisters being launched. Then I see huge clouds in the middle of Pasar Seni, and people running towards me.
The charming sight of pillowy clouds of tear gas, yonder horizon. Fuck you too, BN.
I half-heartedly ran all of a few feet in front before the tear gas catches up with me. Aiyah, menyerah je, I can’t run faster than the air I breathe. I can handle tear gas (however awful), but it’d be worse if I pengsan here from being sick. Sat in front of Pasar Seni, got some salt from a nice old lady, felt the sting in my eyes and looked for an escape route. Train station closed. Babi.
Walked behind Pasar Seni train station (amidst shouts not to cause a stampede — at least some people were keeping their heads with them). Was very upset to see some protestors had brought babies and children with them. Are you fucking nuts? Do not attempt to hold a hostile government hostage with YOUR BABIES. Damn kesian.
Met some hipsters and friends. Some declared they were going to get their money’s worth by getting into Dataran Merdeka. Clearly with everyone’s mobile network down, information was very poorly distributed during the event (and even before). Still encountering people running away from tear gas, noses dripping, eyes bleary, coughing hard. Some were in good humour — apparently there was a change of wind direction where they came from, and the cops had tear gas backfire at them.
Saw a cab, left immediately. Ended up in a pub, cringing at the news as I watched footage RTM would play to death of protestors storming through police barricades and flipping over a cop car.
Hated all political parties a bit more — one for hijacking the event, another for handling it badly (though I knew both would happen). Sinuses impressively clear from the crowd dispersal gas.
Later on, cheered this website on: Dear Ambiga.
Went for a family dinner the next day and was asked by my aunt if I felt gungho about the tear gas. It’s not a surprising question, Bersih 3.0 is a badge of courage for some. At the very least, my own experience was marred by my fever and I should have known better than to attend, even for work.
Personally, I think wanting to get teargassed/arrested for a cause, or appreciating it, would make me an asshole. But feel free to differ in finding whatever values you do in being attacked.
• I have been seen in a Bersih 3.0 T-shirt. I purchased two — one for my mother, and another for myself. Consider this more about my loyalties for cheap T-shirts than Bersih. I wore a black T-shirt to Bersih 3.0.
• To be absolutely clear: I support Bersih’s 8 Demands. I appreciate the movement and the awareness its raised. But because I foresaw the political hijacking and lack of initiative/capacity to effectively limit it — I wasn’t there to support the rally, and if it wasn’t for work, I wouldn’t have been there at all.
• All photos © Lainie Yeoh 2012. Do not use without permission. Heaps more photographs available, contact my gmail account: lainieyeoh @ etc.