It seems I start most posts with an apology for silence, sorry! :P
Here’s an old article (original drafts) on Bersih for archival purposes. First published:
Objectivity and objective oriented thinking are among the first things we should hope to instill in any child, scholar or citizen.
In that spirit, this article will in two parts attempt to examine the following: what matters most about this rally (versus what does not), an analysis of both the police car that ran into protestors as well as the barricade breach incident, and what Saturday tells us about the government, leaders, and people of Malaysia.
What matters most
While I cannot resist commenting on the two incidents analysed below, I would like to agree with commentators who observe that harping on these issues are a distraction from what really matters.
What is a distraction is spending hours trying to interpret hand signals. What really matters is electoral reform.
The fundamental principle of democracy is that people should have the full power to decide how their lives are run. When all is said and done, this and only this is the objective of Bersih.
With an electoral system that is dirty and getting dirtier with amendments passed a few weeks ago that actually makes it easier for the ruling party to cheat in an election, citizens are being deprived of the very essence of liberty and freedom.
In short, you no longer control who controls you.
Without a clean and fair electoral system, the powers that be have obtained ways to remain the powers that be forever.
After the rally last Saturday, I made my way to KLCC for dinner with my loved one.
Business was going on as usual, nothing seemed particularly out of place, despite the mayhem on the streets a few hours earlier.
Should the government continue to cheat its way into power, I think that on the surface, most of Malaysia would look more or less the same, just like it did in KLCC.
The insidiousness of the authorities are such that they find ways to cheat, plunder and abuse the powerless while continuing to feed their opiate to the masses, hoping they won’t notice.
Bersih is about not letting this happen – and that’s what matters.
Violent Bersih supporters?
That said, we are already experiencing no end of spin about how violent these Bersih people are, how the opposition wants to plunge the nation into violent chaos just to gain power, and so on.
In the face of overwhelming video and eyewitness evidence however, lies are exposed, and the truth is laid bare.
In the aftermath, the truth behind two incidents in particular seemed unclear. Again, while mindful that we shall not fall into the government’s trap of getting caught up in red herrings and missing the bigger picture mentioned above, let us just for a moment attempt to objectively examine what happened.
An important note: where people cannot or have not been identified, I maintain an open view as to who any one individual may be – a genuine Bersih supporter, a party member, a hooligan along for the ‘fun’, an undercover policeman, and so on. Without concrete evidence, one cannot as of yet say for sure – thus they shall be referred to merely as individuals.
I came across three videos documenting the incident where a police car smashed into some protestors and ran into a wall.
At first, some of us were suspicious about the confusion that reigned in the immediate aftermath. Some even asked if it was a staged event of some sort, designed to make the protestors look bad.
Only one video shows an aerial view of the moments before the crash. Here, individuals can be seen jumping up and down on the car, and things are thrown continuously at the police vehicle.
It appears that this is in angry response to heavy handed police action the crowd had been experiencing just prior. In my view, attacking the police car as seen just before the crash is still a reprehensible act, whoever the perpetrator.
The police car then swerves off the road to the right, running down what appears to be two or three individuals, and slamming into the wall. The individuals hit fly into the air like bowling pins, one of which can later be seen unconscious lying on the ground to the right of the vehicle, in an area where blood can be seen on the floor.
The crowd rushes to the car, including an individual in a grey t-shirt, shorts, motorcycle helmet and video camera. I am fairly certain this is cameraman Azri Salleh, who works for Al-Hijrah.
Azri is often mistaken as the driver of the car, but careful examination of the video footage clearly shows him running towards the car after the crash.
Piecing together the different video angles, it appears Azri approaches the driver’s window, at which point another individual dressed in yellow approaches from his left to do the same.
It is extremely unclear whether this second individual has good or bad intentions. What we can see however is that Azri is for whatever reason extremely agitated and reacts violently, shoving the man in yellow aside angrily.
This seems to set off the surrounding crowd who then proceed to assault Azri briefly, during which he falls to the floor and is beaten and kicked for a few seconds, after which the individuals doing so seem to stop. Azri is then seen walking away slowly completely unaccosted.
The video then shows two more individuals (one of which was later interviewed in a video by Free Malaysia Today), approach the car, open the door, and then carefully escort the single policeman driver inside away to safety. The policeman is identified as Mohamad Kamil Paimin.
Throughout this incident, there is someone off screen who is screaming repeatedly that there is someone trapped under the car. The nearby individuals then decide to turn over the car, which shows that there was in fact no one underneath.
A number of things surrounding this incident appeared odd at first viewing. Some of us poured over it trying to understand what was going on, and whether there were hidden hands at play.
Having watched the videos multiple times and reading the accounts that later appeared from those involved, I am personally satisfied that there is no conspiracy behind what happened here.
My view is that Mohamad Kamil most likely lost control of his car after it was attacked. For reasons manifestly unclear, Azri Salleh got into a fight with and was beaten by individuals around him. The car was overturned because people thought there was someone underneath.
Chaos always leads to confusion, and in times of tension and high strung emotion, things play out in unpredictable ways. I feel there is little more to be said about this incident, an incident that is regrettable all around.
The incidents moments prior to the breach of the Dataran Merdeka barricade seem equally unclear.
The question on most people’s minds seems to be: who was it that was directly responsible for the first few people breaching the barricade?
The theories range from: the police themselves who surreptitiously opened the barricades in an effort to entrap the protestors, Azmin Ali and or Anwar Ibrahim, and random people in the crowd.
I have watched videos, I have read testimonies, and my conclusion is, well, inconclusive.
Political circles now fervently debate the meaning of hand gestures, conspiracy theorists insist the cops planned this all along, and people less than fond of Pakatan Rakyat insist this was hijacking and/or instigation to unruly behaviour.
While it’s certainly possible, I am not optimistic we will get to the bottom of this. Proving it was a police trap will be difficult, and Azmin and Anwar have both explained that they made no instigation for the crowd to breach the barricade.
In Anwar’s case, there appears to be clear documentation of him asking the crowd to disperse. As for the rest – there are things I perhaps might not put past certain people, but this is really not the same as saying we know for sure that X did Y.
Not having been made in some established sign language, we cannot interpret hand signals for sure. Not having clear evidence of who it was exactly that opened the barricades, whether police or Bersih supporters, we cannot say for sure one way or the other.
At the end of the day, it basically comes down to who you believe is telling the truth, and who you believe is lying. I myself tend to find that whether we believe someone is truthful or not probably tells us more about how we feel about that person than it does about whether that person is telling the truth.
People do love to speculate, I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself. After the dust settles however, and when most of the evidence that is likely to emerge has emerged, we must try to take an objective view of things. Thereafter, we conclude for ourselves whatever is fair to conclude, and admit uncertainty where the evidence is contradictory or insufficient.
Having taken a microscopic view, the second part of the article will return to the bigger picture – What are the implications of violence, whoever the perpetrator, for future rallies? How does it reflect on civil society and/or Pakatan Rakyat? And my personal favourite, what the hell was Najib Razak doing all this time?
Bersih & Najib, Our Francesco Schettino
Videos of the police car being overturned during the Bersih 3.0 rally must have been a wet dream come true for BN spinmeisters the likes of Tan Keng Liang.
What can we say objectively about the violence at the rally?
Some posit that all the “violent protestors” were in fact agent provocateurs planted by the powers that be.
This is of course entirely possible, but it cannot be confirmed or denied entirely at this point, based on available evidence. I deem it probably unlikely that every single person who exhibited violence at the rally did so at the secret behest of the authorities.
If there were indeed supporters of Bersih who turned violent at the rally, what does that tell us about Bersih?
I posit: very little indeed.
The people who turned up at the rally are not Bersih “members”. There is no such thing.
A rally like this attracts all sorts. I would estimate 99% in attendance (not counting policemen or saboteurs) are fervently committed to a culture of non-violence. Then there is the 1% who, as Batman’s butler tells us, “just want to watch the world burn”.
In terms of proportions, saying rallies should be banned because violence sometimes occurs would very much be like saying we should ban motorcycles because snatch thieves use motorcycles (although, sometimes the behaviour of some motorcyclists on the road get me thinking this may not be such a bad idea).
Room for improvement?
Could there have been better crowd control on the part of the organisers?
I think the simple answer is yes. I take this view partly because I always believe there is room for improvement. There are very few exceptions indeed to this.
I understand and appreciate the severe constraints and challenges the organisers faced.
I would nonetheless humbly recommend expanding considerable effort in vastly improving the lines of communication from organiser to participant. When hundreds of thousands of people gather, they are looking for firm decisions to be communicated firmly to everyone.
Chaos and confusion are after all always attendant to the absence of clear lines of communication, command and control.
What about the other end of the spectrum?
While we cannot yet say for sure who is responsible for the violence that appears to have been perpetrated by people in yellow shirts and such, there is no doubt regarding extensive video footage of police brutalising unarmed, often helpless citizens.
In many instances, a pack of policeman descend upon an individual who had been separated from the crowd, and beat him mercilessly, without any reason at all. The sight of it curls the stomach, and shows the very worst excesses of people abusing their power and their uniform.
If and when a more systematic collection of this visual evidence is compiled, I believe what we find will be extremely damning.
A measure of last resort
In conclusion to this part of the discussion, two fundamental things:
Firstly, there appear to be no recorded incidents of violence prior to the police firing tear gas and water cannons upon the crowd. A popular theory posits simply: If they had just let us in, none of this would have happened. I generally believe this to be true.
(Of course, if you believe the conspiracy theory about the barricade, then we were “let in” precisely for this to eventually happen).
Secondly, we must examine the hyphothesis: had there been no rally, there would have been no violence.
Indeed, empirically speaking this may seem irrefutable.
At the same time, I think there is no doubt that had there been no rally, there would be even less hope for electoral reform – paving the way for the nightmare of a democracy stolen from the rakyat.
Without resistance, the unjust will always reign unchallenged and supreme.
I have always said no one likes going out in the dead of the afternoon to face tear gas and water cannons (ok, almost no one); but Malaysians will not sit by and watch their fundamental right to chose their own government fairly heinously usurped. That is the simple truth of it.
Seeing how all other measures have so clearly failed to result in meaningful action or reform, hundreds of thousands of Malaysians saw no available alternatives left to ensure the government took notice.
In the end, ordinary Malaysians went out there and risked their all because they believed a line has to be drawn somewhere – and together as one people, we drew that line at Dataran Merdeka.
What was Najib doing?
The government handled Bersih 2.0 and Bersih 3.0 very differently.
In the former, every minister and his/her mother came out to condemn Bersih. This time, the evidence suggests a complete gag order.
Only Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was sent to do the dirty work, and he didn’t seem to have a clue what he was really saying – a feat he seems to have successfully extended post-Bersih.
The other peon sent to the lonely and dangerous front was KL Mayor Ahmad Fuad Ismail. While last year the Prime Minister was at the forefront of discussions about Bersih, this time he sent someone not at the federal level, not at the state level, but at the municipal level.
Who then is responsible for the police violence?
In cases where dogs attack humans, we hold their owners legally responsible.
Equally, I am of the school of thought which believes that when something goes wrong in a ship, there is no point in going after the sailors – ultimately, the captain must always bear final responsibility.
In this respect, Najib’s captaincy in this situation most resembles that of Captain Francesco Schettino of the Costa Concordia – the man who refused to return to his sinking ship after he abandoned it, despite being ordered by the Coast Guard to do so to help with the rescue efforts.
This spectacle gave rise to the meme, Vada a bordo, cazzo!, which translates roughly to “Get back on board, you !#$@!”
Imagine the scene.
On the same day that hundreds of thousands of Malaysians went down to the streets and faced tear gas and water cannons to demand clean and fair elections as their fundamental democratic right, the Prime Ministers sits and thinks about an appropriate course of action.
He decides: “I know, I should go to Bukit Tunku and get a hair cut.”
Has our Prime Minister gone mad? Does he fancy himself a Nero amidst a burning Rome? Vada a bordo, cazzo!
Having learnt from Bersih 2.0 that the more they tried to suppress Bersih, the worse they looked (a classic case of being trolled), the government – and especially Najib himself – chose to remain utterly quiet this time.
Of course, someone had to be fed to the lions. Hishammuddin, Ahmad Fuad, and the Inspector General of the Police all probably found themselves facing the firing squad with dead silence from the top. I can’t imagine how much they must resent the Prime Minister’s cowardice.
The trickle down effect of cowardice
This absence of leadership goes a long way in understanding how things happened on the 28th of April.
It seems the only clear instruction to the police from the IGP was: don’t do anything unless they breach Dataran.
A number of things: Firstly, this could be why the protesters were “allowed” to breach the barricades, if that was what indeed happened. Secondly, there does not seem to have been clear instruction as to what to do after action began to be taken.
Reviewing the videos and eyewitness accounts of violence, I find myself thinking of a popular song by the Baha Men.
On Saturday evening, I spoke to someone on the train to KLCC who told of how the police were breaking the peace and forcing their way into restaurants, roughing up anyone in a yellow t-shirt (video evidence has since emerged of such instances). They were chasing Malaysians around town late into the evening, for no apparent reasons whatsoever.
As seen by the way they fired tear gas after people were already dispersing, their motivation seemed to be one of vengeance – vengeance devoid of any real purpose or leadership.
Too long have we endured a culture of police brutality, and too long have we abided those who are truly responsible.
Najib’s cowardice in failing to deal with the entire Bersih matter maturely is nothing short of disgusting.
The wise thing to do would have been to let the people gather peacefully at Dataran Merdeka, listen to what they have to say, and then let them disperse peacefully.
If he thought he could happily let some other fall guys take the rap while he shut up for weeks, and then crawl out of the woodwork to whine and spin after the fact (after, of course, his ‘urgently needed’ haircut), he has another thing coming.
Courage in our final lap
Ultimately, all this is about nothing more and nothing less than the right to choose our leaders fairly.
It was on the last day of parliament that the government – in a move that can only signal truly malicious intent – enacted amendments to electoral laws that actually make it easier for the government to cheat and steal an election.
Some ten days before Bersih (either arrogance or pure desperation), and literally in the dead of night, amidst stopped clocks – they eroded yet another fundamental liberty that is the human right of every Malaysian.
Not until that moment did I realise how serious the ruling party is about cheating, how close they are to the edge, and how desperate they are not to fall off.
One way or another, I feel we are in for some truly challenging months ahead. It may not be long before we can be compared to the worst tyrannies and dictatorships in the world.
Nevertheless, I refuse to let my fear restrain me from taking a stand against injustice.
On the 28th of April, the 9th of July, and the 10th of November before it, Malaysians came together and said Ya basta! Enough is enough.
No more power through corruption, no more apathy through ignorance, no more oppression through tyranny.
The powerful will use every last measure at their considerable disposal to corrupt the democratic process, and we, the rakyat, will have to use every last measure of our considerable strength to resist it.
If ever you despair, you remember that commitment and resolve that was written on the face of every one of your brothers and sisters that came out to walk with you that scorching Saturday afternoon. You remember and you take heart.
Remember, and know this – it may take days, it may take a lifetime; but armed with nothing but our integrity and our conscience, believe me, we shall overcom