Violence clouds protest message
The biggest losers resulting from Bersih 3.0 were ordinary people looking for change
It has been just over a week since Bersih 3.0 exploded onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The huge rally, with tens of thousands calling for free and fair elections, later gave way to a torrent of views on the internet, social and mainstream media as to what actually transpired on April 28. The volume of pictures, video footage and comments on our computers, iPads and phones have probably made this rally one of the country’s most documented. Good as that may be, the sad outcome of this peaceful-turned-violent rally is that public discourse has shifted dramatically away from the original intentions of Bersih 3.0. Several “Bersih” (meaning “clean” in Malay) rallies have been organized by prominent members of civil society demanding free and fair elections in a country where polls are usually marred by numerous acts of vote-buying, dubious electoral rolls and an Election Commission that is perceived to be neither independent nor competent. This year’s protest saw a dramatic increase in numbers despite harsh condemnation by the government. On protest day, the venue, Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square) was cordoned off since a court order had banned gatherings there. So, organizers sent out messages for protestors to gather at five other points in the city. From there, a coordinated march was made to the Dataran Merdeka area. The organizers were however unequivocally clear that the barriers erected around the square would not be breached. Police were uncharacteristically restrained in the beginning. They stood by and watched as protestors gathered and marched nonchalantly. They didn’t even attempt to prevent leaders from making loud and passionate speeches. However, at approximately 3pm, the police barriers around Dataran Merdeka were suddenly breached by a small group of individuals. The large crowd then surged forward into the square. It was at this point all hell broke loose. Police swung into action by with liberal doses of tear gas, while many others were doused with jets of chemical-laced water as they ran for cover. It was pandemonium and many passed out in the ensuing chaos. The police continued their assault by chasing protestors beyond the barriers. Unfortunately, several police vehicles were attacked by an angry mob resulting in at least one plowing into a group of protestors. It came to a loud halt after it smashed head-on into the wall of a building. Several people were injured including the police officer driving the car and a reporter who attempted to protect him from being beaten by unruly protestors. In the evening, as the rally wound down, over 100 policemen were seen chasing down protestors and beating them mercilessly in the road. It appeared to me that the police were acting without any restraint. I witnessed at least three such incidences as well as one where policemen smashed the mobile phone of a bystander taking pictures of their brutality. Much ink has been spilled in speculating who was responsible for the violence. Perhaps the question needs to be reframed: Who would benefit from a peaceful rally descending into a violent one? Upon reflection, it dawned on me that both sides of the political divide would benefit from violence on the streets. The government would have a field day demonizing the organizers for perpetuating a violent protest in a feeble attempt to justify why it was never in favor of public rallies. Ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad even went as far as to say that the object of the protest was to overthrow the government. How a bunch of ordinary citizens clad in T-shirts and armed with bottled water, salt and balloons are able to overthrow a government escapes me. As for the opposition, it may not be presumptuous to say that it may have surreptitiously desired chaos and violence in an insidious attempt to lure the unusually restrained police to react in a typical high-handed way. Considering that the general election is round the corner, it would clearly be in the opposition’s interest to rant and rave about how brutal the police were with innocent protestors. What about the police? The home minister had several days earlier declared the event was not a security threat. One police officer told me that there were orders not to arrest anyone who turned up for the rally, apparently following the spirit of the brand new Peaceful Assembly Act. But can a police force drunk on years of absolute and unbridled power over the masses now suddenly sober up to a new reality that their power appears to have been curtailed in an attempt to appease the downtrodden? Can such a force shed overnight its horrid, ugly and despised aura and clothe itself in professionalism where restraint is the mantra of the day even when faced with protestors who hurl abuse and profanities at them? As the events of that day unfolded, this was evidently not the case. Perhaps the only folks who turned up that day with genuine intentions were ordinary Malaysians, who were there solely for the purpose of registering their support for the cause. These were folks who hold day jobs, pay their taxes and follow the law. They have had enough of a government that has been rocked by one corruption scandal too many. Bersih 3.0 was an opportunity to express their desire for a long overdue clean-up. The tragedy of it all was that it is this majority that has ended up the biggest losers. It is this well-meaning, law abiding majority that got caught in the dreadful mix of dirty politics, hideous motives and the sheer cruelty of a selfish few. For it is widely apparent now that the discourse for free and fair elections has been altogether drowned in a sea of accusations and counter-accusations. While the opposition busies itself with incessant calls for independent investigations into violence perpetuated by the police, the government and police have embarked on a frenzied witch-hunt, arresting known protestors in their homes and offices and frog-marching them into court. The organizers, on the other hand, are probably huddled together desperately working on a damage control plan. Meanwhile, the question that begs attention is: who is talking about the election demands that protestors wore so gallantly on their backs? Joachim Francis Xavier is a legally trained social activist who has served Penang diocese for more than 10 years. He is currently chairperson of the Malaysian bishops’ Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants.