A Tale of Two Sit-Ins

Posted on May 4, 2012

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Written by Dato’ Yeo Yang Poh, a member of Bersih 2.0 Steering Committee.

Bersih 3.0 in Kuala Lumpur

The 4/28 Bersih 3.0 rally in Kuala Lumpur started off well and proceeded peacefully, but unfortunately did not conclude in the same fashion. Details of various ugly incidents have yet to be fully ascertained. It will take some time to piece the pieces together.

No doubt the authorities will very quickly come out with their “official versions” of those incidents, and blame them all on the protestors and the event organisers. Some mainstream media will sycophantically report the official versions as gospel truth. Government spin doctors are having a busy week.

But in this country, official versions of things are no longer believed except by the woefully undiscerning or the tragically indoctrinated; and most (though not all) mainstream media are viewed with disdain by an ever increasing number of members of the public due to growing awareness of the hidden truth among the masses.

To me, the numerous attacks by the police on journalists and cameramen, and the destruction, damage and confiscation of their equipment and memory cards, were self-explanatory. These acts were enough to amount to an admission of wrongdoing on the part of the police, for I cannot think of any other credible explanation of the need for the police to carry out such disgraceful acts. The Home Minister’s statement that those acts were done as part of the police’s standard SOP is laughable, unless by SOP he does not mean Standard Operating Procedure.

Bersih 3.0 in Johor Bahru

The 4/28 rally in Johor Bahru was the first of its kind in that city. It started, proceeded and concluded in an exceedingly orderly and peaceful manner. We managed to occupy a section of Dataran Bandaraya, our intended venue. The atmosphere throughout was good, cheerful, passionate, friendly, orderly and peaceful. Upon its conclusion, a cleaning exercise was carried out by the participants and the Bersih security personnel. Journalists were invited to see how remarkably clean the place was when we left it. There was no unpleasant or ugly incident at all, except something that happened away from the venue, to which I shall later return.

Both events in Kuala Lumpur and in Johor Bahru were organized and participated by citizens sharing similar aspirations. Why, then, the vast difference between what had happened in the two places?

The reasons, some of which are not immediately discernible on the surface, require a careful and deeper analysis. I will set out some background, before drawing comparisons between the 2 cities.

 

Lessons learned by the Johor Bahru organisers

Almost all the Johor Bahru organisers were green-horns.

The idea of organizing a Johor Bahru event (instead of having those interested to all go up to join the KL rally) was formed a mere 2 to 3 weeks before the date. When first approached, I was skeptical about the number of participants that the JB rally would attract, seeing the late preparation and noting the lack of a history of such events in Johor Bahru.

But I was impressed and encouraged by the spirit, enthusiasm and dedication of these organisers, who were strangers to me (and were largely strangers to one another as well), and whose bona fide, courage and aspirations rendered irrelevant their relative lack of experience in social activism. It is this kind of spirit among the ordinary people that will eventually bring about change to a society.

We encountered obstacles regarding the venue, similar to those faced in KL. The police very quickly said that they had no objections to the rally, but passed the buck to MBJB. Despite the police’s nod, MBJB, to the surprise of no one apart from the proverbial village idiot, decided that we, the Rakyat in Johor Bahru, could not enter Dataran Bandaraya on that day. At first, no reason was given. Two days before the event, MBJB informed us that there was going to be a football match on 4/28 at the Dataran Bandaraya, in relation to a “Piala Datuk Bandar”. We said we would only occupy a section of the dataran, away from the football field. No go, they said. Not even to watch the game? Then the MBJB humoured us by suggesting some other venues, which, after the customary running around (an exercise that was probably futile from its inception but nevertheless had to be performed), came to naught. That energy-wasting process brought us right up to the eve of the rally.

It would at least have been a fresh breath of candidness if MBJB had instead told us that: though the dataran is available, we won’t agree with you using it because we (or persons who have authority or influence over us) disagree with the views you intend to express there. That would have saved everybody a lot of time, and at the same time maintained the basic dignity of being honest.

By placing obstacles in our way, I suppose they had hoped that we would simply say: well, in that case, thank you very much, this is becoming too difficult; the people’s right of expression is no big deal, so we will call off the event, stay at home and watch TV3?

All that game-playing that we were drawn into did not produce the result they had wanted. The only thing it managed to achieve was to frustrate and insult the intelligence of good, ordinary, bona fide and well-intentioned citizens. The first-time organisers among us had a crash course in experiencing how the people’s good faith was reciprocated with crude shadow-play by the authorities.

When the organisers told MBJB that we were going to proceed the following day, MBJB did something else. They sent to the media a press release by them (without our knowledge) saying that the venue of the 4/28 event in Johor Bahru was at Larkin Stadium (far away from Dataran Bandaraya). Some mainstream papers dutifully published that false information.

That MBJB press release was deceitful. In a meeting on 26 April between MBJB and the organisers, in which a representative from Larkin Stadium was present, it was already made clear to us that Larkin Stadium was out of bounds for us on 4/28 as well.

On the eve of 4/28, too, we received information that a troop of about 100 motorcyclists, clad in attires of the same colour (not yellow), travelled along the North-South Highway towards Johor Bahru, reportedly with police outrider escorts. Perhaps they were coming to JB to watch the Piala Datuk Bandar match? The following day, I saw persons fitting that description of attire (and with motorbikes) at the Dataran Bandaraya. In the end, no untoward incidents happened at the venue. I believe good sense prevailed on the part of those who mattered.

The turning-point in JB

Shortly after noon on 4/28, participants gathered at a few different meeting points (each about half a kilometer to 1 kilometer from Dataran Bandaraya). Nearer 2 pm, they slowly moved towards the venue, in an orderly fashion.

Meanwhile, negotiators at Dataran Bandaraya were negotiating with the MBJB enforcement officers there to allow the approaching participants to enter a section of the dataran. Our requests were, at first, consistently rejected. We headed closer to expecting that the fast-approaching crowd would be turned away and asked to disperse, which would create a crowd-management problem and necessitate the execution of Plan B.

As the crowd swelled, however, at one point some police officer in charge there told our negotiators that the police had no objections to the crowd gathering at one section of the dataran, so long as we did not interfere with the football game. The organisers then led the participants into a section of the dataran.

This was the turning point for the Bersih 3.0 rally in Johor Bahru.

That was the wisest and most correct position that the police had taken on that day. That decision enabled and ensured that the rally could proceed and conclude peacefully. Whoever it was that had made the wise decision on that day on behalf of the police – God bless him/her/them!

After the participants moved into a small part of the dataran; some sat down, others stood. The rally proceeded in a good-natured manner. It was that changed position of the police that made people feel that at last the authorities acknowledged and respected their right of expression. Ill feelings were avoided. The dignity of the people was preserved. The rally concluded at 4 pm, as scheduled. We thanked the police, as well as the MBJB personnel there.

All quarters were happy; they looked happy to me. Except that I am not sure about the curious bikers; they did not look too happy to me.

Distinguishing factors between the 2 sit-ins

The most crucial differences between the JB event and the KL event are these.

In Johor Bahru, the people were eventually allowed to exercise their rights (albeit not under the best condition) – to gather at a venue they find symbolic, to express themselves in a manner they prefer, and then to disperse peacefully, causing no harm to others.

In Kuala Lumpur, on the other hand, the people’s will was thwarted with absolute obstinacy, contemptuous highhandedness, and disproportionate force.

The KL participants were prevented from going to the venue of their choice, and to exercise their freedom of expression in a manner that they had wanted. The excuses for the refusal of venue continued to insult the people’s intelligence. Dataran Merdeka, the people’s independence square, was completely empty that afternoon, while the surrounding streets were filled.

Was there a proper and intelligent reason for the display of arrogant and insistent refusal on the part of the authorities? There was a magistrate’s order; but it was obtained ex-parte and by the police themselves. It was a product of a system against which in the first place the participants had wanted to exercise their democratic right in expressing dissatisfaction. Apart from its questionable nature, at best the order might constitute a legal reason, not a democratic, moral or sensible one.

Let us not forget that the police’s sole function on 4/28 was to maintain order. Surely, keeping tens of thousands of protestors in the streets, under challenging conditions, could not have been a better way of maintaining order than having them into Dataran Merdeka! It was a wrong call by the police, from the public order perspective; and the paramount consideration for the police on that day must be public order. What legitimate basis did the police have to persist in keeping out the protestors at any cost? Unlike their JB counterparts, the KL police handled the situation rather badly.

In Kuala Lumpur, the unreasonableness of the authorities and the highhandedness of the police created and then intensified the frustration felt by the participants. The excessive use of force fuelled ill-will and anger among the crowd. The dignity of the participants was trampled upon, their aspirations scorned. All these were in stark contrast with what was happening in Johor Bahru at around the same time.

In the main, it was the police mishandling in Kuala Lumpur that led to the occurrence of ugly incidents, in sharp contrast with what took place in Johor Bahru and other cities.

Belief cannot be browbeaten

The Bersih movement has instilled a new sense of belief among its millions of supporters and participants – the belief that each and every ordinary citizen does count, and can together make a big difference. Many who prior to Bersih had felt resigned to a sense of helplessness in the grip of a corrupt and authoritarian government have now derived strength from this liberating belief.

Such belief in oneself and in others cannot be gained by sitting at home, studying a book, surfing the net, watching a movie, giving a talk or writing an article. It can only be experienced and reinforced through free association and connection with others, in assemblies, gatherings, rallies, and marches. This is the ‘power of the people’ that many regimes do not want the people to discover.

Once discovered, however, this liberating belief rapidly grows in oneself and spreads to others. The authorities cannot hope to by force suppress or take away this belief, and expect anything short of strong reactions. A government cannot keep the people in a pressurized cooker and turn on the heat, without something boiling over or exploding at some point in time; worse still if it should attempt to blame it all on the ones subject to intense and prolonged pressure.

Cowardly acts of sabotage & hooliganism

I mentioned earlier some incidents in Johor Bahru on 4/28 (away from Dataran Bandaraya) that had blemished an otherwise perfect day. It is this.

There were several initial meeting points, some distance from Dataran Bandaraya. Some participants had come by car, and had parked their cars near those meeting points. When they went back to collect their cars, some of them found that their vehicles had been splashed with acid.

Who could have done such acts; and under whose instructions?

These are clearly acts of cowardice, sabotage and hooliganism, just like what had recently happened to the students at Dataran Merdeka. Is thuggery a new tool in the employ of certain quarters in Malaysia now? Will the police effectively protect the public against such breaches of peace, instead of training their canons on peaceful protestors? Or will I be accused of being naïve by posing this question?

Noting the deliberate acts of sabotage in Johor Bahru, it does not stretch one’s imagination at all to suspect that there were saboteurs and agent provocateurs among the Kuala Lumpur crowd, who (or whose instructing masters) did not wish to see a peaceful conclusion of the rally.

One thing, however, I am sure. Cowardly and sinister acts of this nature will only make the people more determined to bring about change, so that our country can become safer, stronger and more prosperous.

The Home Minister spoke to Al Jazeera. Confronted with clear evidence of unwarranted attacks on journalists and protestors, and of the use of excessive force, he said that most of the police conducted themselves well. He said that some police personnel might have misbehaved, but one cannot blame the entire police force for that. There is logic in that argument. But the same logic had mysteriously deserted him, when he tried shamelessly to blame the entire Bersih movement for incidents of hooliganism.

Bersih has immediately called for a Suhakam enquiry. Why has the police not supported the call? Why has the Home Minister not supported the call?

Either a new mindset, or a new set of minds

A complete change of mindset is required on the part of the authorities and the police, backed up by new ways of conduct, before the Rakyat would start to trust them. The authorities must accord protestors with dignity. The police must facilitate peaceful assemblies, instead of preventing them from taking place.

Sadly, the reaction of the authorities to Bersih 3.0 does not indicate that a genuine change of mindset will voluntarily occur any time soon. They are still trying to square the circle. They are still just talking about change, without changing.

If a new mindset proves too difficult to have, then a new set of minds will come into place; because change is inevitable, one way or another. History tells us that even the worst wars would eventually come to an end; and even the harshest tyrannies will one day fall.

– Yeo Yang Poh

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