Yelling all around, shoving my way through a crowd of 20 men to squeeze through a two-foot gate with angry, baton-holding police at our heels, those few minutes during the Kuala Lumpur Bersih 2.0 rally ended up being some of the most terrifying minutes of my life.
Some few seconds before, I naively assumed my friend Jullian and I were in the “safe” zone, a quieter area on a hill above the city streets looking down on the now-vacant intersection of Jalan Pudu and Jalan Tun Perak that, minutes before, had been full of thousands of protesters demanding fair and frequent elections and an end to corruption.
Jullian and I had arrived earlier that day to Masjid Jamek – one of the protesters’ several gathering points throughout Kuala Lumpur – to witness a major political rally that had the potential to completely change the Malaysian government. After failing to compromise on a suitable protest location, the government had declared the street rally illegal, blocked all major accesses into the city and threatened to arrest anyone who disobeyed that day. Armed with a backpack full of bottled water, extra clothes, snacks and surgical masks, we had prepared for the worst.
Jullian and I had arrived at the Masjid Jamek subway station around noon, a full two hours before the protests were supposed to start. As I looked around outside, I was surprised to find things quite calm. As all major roads to the city had been shut down the night before, nearly all the shops were closed and most of the streets had been deserted. Local police officers in their dark blue uniforms casually patrolled the streets, as patches of reporters, gawkers and protestors stood around, some taking pictures, some chatting amongst themselves but all waiting for what was about to happen.
Behind the first line, however, it was clear that police were prepared for anything but a casual afternoon. Dark blue “Black Maria” trucks with benches in the boot and gates in the back waited to take away protesters. Behind them, giant red trucks stood patiently for their turn to hose down the crowds. All around, riot police, donned in black uniforms and red helmets, wielded their weapons, some toying with their tear gas guns, others tapping their batons against the plastic of their shin protectors.
To avoid trouble, Jullian and I had decided to play the roles of tourist and tourist guide, despite the fact that I’ve been in Malaysia for a year now, and he is one of my best friends and colleagues. We did our best to smile and act normal as we walked behind the police lines and decided to join the cops and get an ice cream with the vendor on the corner. To my surprise, the police were really friendly with me. They welcomed my requests to take pictures and even invited me to pose with them, as they slouched on the steps, also enjoying their ice creams.
But within minutes, before I could even finish my ice cream, that peace was ended. Suddenly, the random crowds began to turn the corner, journalists running, and Jullian and I followed to find the rally had officially begun. With rhythmic chants of “Hidup, Hidup, Keadlian!” and “Reformasi!” (“Long Live Justice!” and “Reformation!”) several hundred protesters had begun to march.
To my surprise, the protesting crowd was quite small, far less than the tens of thousands of people the organizers had expected. But as we made our way to Jalan Tun Perak, it soon became apparent that our little crowd was just the beginning. As we stood on the steps of the Maybank Tower, the apparent gathering point of the rally, we watched as swarms of protesters from all corners of the intersection joined in what soon became a massive crowd of thousands. Around us, people continued to chant, brandishing Malaysian flags and waving around smuggled in yellow t-shirts and balloons – representations of Bersih’s official color. Somewhere in the distance, instructions were being given in Malay from a loudspeaker connected to a phone from unseen leaders who had been banned from entering the city, while police on the outside began to warn the crowd to disperse immediately or they would move in.
Jullian and I decided our best bet was to stay close to the police, with easy access to move behind the line and run if necessary. As we stood on the side, directly in line with the riot police, I realized the careless, relaxed faces I had seen earlier had been completely replaced with expressions of anger and threat.
As we watched the large red truck enter into the intersection, my heart began to race: the water cannons were coming first. Safe behind the police line, we watched as gallons of water were turned on the crowds, spewing around 180 degrees. It wasn’t until the red truck started reversing toward us and the tear gas came out that we began to run. Loud shots fired from behind and my heart began to pound as we headed even further behind the police line and stopped to watch what was going on. A haze of gas and water lie ahead of us in the street and all around people began to cough, some rinsing their eyes out with bottles of water to relieve the sting. It took a few minutes for me to feel the effects, but soon my eyes began to sting and tear, as if I had just cut up a lot of onions, and my throat began to burn. Jullian and I quickly joined with the others in rinsing our eyes with water and headed to higher ground in hopes of both escaping the gas and gaining a vantage point on what had happened to the crowds.
As we reached the top of the hill, the saturated, foam-covered pavement below revealed there was clearly something other than just water in those cannons – and clearly that substance had done its job. Crowds began dispersing into other streets of the city, and though we were in front of the police line, I didn’t realize that the small crowd gathered around us, some praying fervently, would be next in line for arrest. As I stood photographing those who were praying, ignoring Jullian’s calls to move, I didn’t realize that a band of riot police were beginning to surround us, ready to charge. It wasn’t until Jullian screamed at me to run that I realized they were coming for us – and they had weapons. In front of me a group of men were fervently trying to squeeze through a narrow gate and Jullian kept pushing and yelling at me to run and get out. The prospect of brushing up and competing to escape against this aggressive, stampede of men more than terrified me, but when I turned around to see a line of angry riot police waving their batons and grasping for arrests, I was scared out of my mind. As the police grabbed one of the men and pulled him to the ground, I ran behind them and pressed myself against the wall of the building, clinging to Jullian and shaking in fear. For some reason, they didn’t bother with us and Jullian and I ducked slowly back to the “safe zone” to recuperate and observe.
Around, police began to bring in the new arrests, one dragged by his arms, another with torn clothing and still another, donned in bright yellow, wearing a tribal indigenous hat with a big smile on his face. Even old ladies were detained, and soon those earlier empty “Black Marias” were fully-loaded and headed for the jails.
Physically and emotionally exhausted, Jullian and I returned to Masjid Jamak – now vacant – to sit, relax and regroup. The angry crowds that had filled the street just hours before had vanished, though the groups of local police officers patrolling the now-closed subway entrance made it clear the battle was not yet over. Every now and then, Jullian and I caught a glimpse of a crowd turn the corner, smaller now, but chanting with every bit of passion they had displayed some few hours before.
Word on the street was that the crowds were headed to the Kuala Lumpur City Centre, the heart of the capital and the site of its famous Petronas Twin Towers, for what could have been a dramatic end to the rally. But as we arrived in front of the gleaming iconic landmarks – representations of Malaysia’s growing strength and development – protesters were nowhere to be found. Instead, rows of riot police roamed the streets, this time on horseback, in an ironic contrast to the modern monuments behind them.
In the end, both the government and the protesters declared that day a success and as Jullian and I left the city centre, tired, sore and starving, I realized our day, too had been a success. Chased, tear-gassed and nearly arrested, we managed to walk away completely unscathed. And as I read of the more than 1600 people that were arrested that day, I recalled the images of the tattered shirts, dragging knees and grounded men and realized how truly lucky we were. Though no physical marks remain, the memory of the Bersih 2.0 rally was a life-changing experience that will stay with me forever.
To hear my live radio interview with WDET Detroit Public Radio on the event, please click here.