Observing the Bersih rally

Yeo Yang Poh
Nov 15, 07  

The Bar Council organised some 40 lawyers to observe the Bersih rally last Saturday and to provide legal assistance if needed. I was one of the observers.

Driving from Johor Bahru, I arrived at Sungai Besi at about 10 am. I was then caught in a 6km crawl that took me one-and-a-half hours. It was due to a roadblock set up by the police. As I inched towards the roadblock, I observed that no car was being stopped or questioned (for the duration when I was there). The only outcome, as far as I could see, was that traffic was slowed down to a turtle’s pace, causing a massive jam. I wondered what the real purpose of the roadblock was.
I was at the Bar Council building at 2pm. Roads leading to Dataran Merdeka had been cordoned off. There was heavy police presence. I noticed groups of persons everywhere, who appeared to be waiting to take part in the rally.

At Masjid Jamek

It was raining heavily. I walked towards the Masjid Jamek station, where I was to be initially stationed. When I arrived at Jalan Tun Perak (corner of Burger King), I saw thousands gathered in the street, trying to move towards Dataran. They were stopped by FRU barricades. There was shouting of slogans from time to time. It went on for a while, and then the police started using water canons to force the crowd back. Moments later, tear gas was fired into the re-gathered crowd. I did not hear any warning issued. However, I was some distance away from the barricade. Persons at the front would be better able to confirm. The crowd dispersed around 2:45 pm (later re-gathered at Istana Negara).
I observed the following at Masjid Jamek:
(a) The crowd was peaceful. I did not see any untoward disturbances, unruly or violent behaviour on the part of the participants.
(b) There were other people around, who happened to be at the location, and who were not there to take part in the march.
(c) The only reason I could see for the use of water canons and tear gas was to prevent a peaceful gathering, and not because its participants had caused any chaos, riot or violence. The crowd was orderly, but became (naturally) less so when the police employed water canons and tear gas.
(d) The use of water canons and tear gas had also affected bystanders and persons present who were not part of the rally.
(e) The crowd, when running away from the tear gas and chemically laced water, was amazingly relatively unchaotic under the circumstances. I did not see any pushing or shoving, even when the participants were running for cover.
(f) I did not personally witness any beatings perpetrated by the police, although I heard accounts of the same. One journalist ran to where I was standing, and told me that he had been assaulted by the police. His right eye was swollen.

At Istana Negara

I walked to Istana Negara from Pasar Seni, together with four other lawyers. On the way, I saw many people walking there too (taking different routes). It was drizzling.
When we arrived at Istana Negara, a huge crowd had already gathered there, and more people continued to arrive to join it. There was again heavy police presence. A delegation of the participants presented a memorandum to a representative of the palace. A short speech was made. Police then asked the crowd to disperse, which the crowd did peacefully, at about 4 pm.
Unlike at Masjid Jamek, the police at Istana Negara did not use water canons or tear gas. I did not witness any violence perpetrated by the police there.
At Istana Negara, I observed the following:
(g) The gathering was peaceful. Order was kept throughout.
(h) I did not see any incident of unruliness or violence, on anyone’s part.
(i) The police showed commendable restraint, including allowing the huge crowd reasonable time to disperse in the end. Such restraint helped keep the gathering peaceful throughout.
Acknowledgment for the Bar
We were wearing “observer” tags. Wherever we went, our presence and our role were warmly acknowledged and appreciated by the participants. Many of them shook my hand as they walked past me. Others smiled and nodded appreciatively. A few of them loudly said: “Hidup peguam”!
The police, too, were cooperative with us.
The Bar should know that its contributions to society have not gone unnoticed. This should spur us on to contribute more in future.
Credit for the success in carrying out our functions as observers on that day must go to all members of the team of dedicated and energetic lawyers led by Edmund Bon and coordinated by Rajen. Many of them stayed behind that night as well, to provide legal assistance to those who were arrested.
As I obviously only witnessed parts of the proceedings that afternoon, my observations must of course be read along with the reports and observations of the others.
Some conclusions from my observations
From my observations, I draw the following conclusions:
(1) The participants of the Bersih rally on Nov 10 were disciplined. They evidently came with the desire for a peaceful assembly in order to publicly vocalise and display their views, and thereafter to leave peacefully.
(2) As far as I am aware, the gathering at Istana Negara was incident free, compared with that at Masjid Jamek. I attribute this important difference to the differences in approach adopted at the two places. At Istana Negara, the police had allowed the gathering to proceed peacefully, while keeping watch on any unruliness. It did proceed peacefully, and ended no longer than was necessary (without incident). In contrast, the police at Masjid Jamek tried to forcibly deny the crowd’s desire to proceed with a peaceful assembly, which led to unnecessary violence, prolonged the duration of the assembly, and reduced its orderliness.
(3) If, for example, the police had allowed the gathering to take place at Dataran, there would have been far less inconvenience to the traffic and the activities in the areas surrounding Dataran, than what was caused that afternoon by the denial of that opportunity.
(4) What transpired on Nov 10 clearly showed that peaceful assemblies are an easily achievable reality in Malaysia, when the police refrain from thwarting the people’s legitimate desire to exercise their basic human and constitutional rights of the freedom of assembly and expression. The reasons why the authorities have almost always disallowed public rallies, demonstrations and marches (that are not sanctioned by the government or are not in line with its views) appear to lie not with any concerns for order and security, but elsewhere.
(5) Actions taken by the police (following the wishes of the authorities) to prevent public assemblies often create much more inconvenience and ill will for the public, than would such peaceful assemblies, if permitted and properly facilitated instead. Public order and security will be better served if the police channel their energy to helping to maintain peace and order during public assemblies, rather than to employing harsh measures to stop them from happening.
(6) Participants of public assemblies, on their part, must at all times maintain a high level of discipline, so that such events may be peacefully and successfully carried out.
Peaceful assemblies in a just society
Some ministers and politicians have said that there is no need for public assembly in a country that conducts elections. By their argument, it would follow that democracy is complete as long as citizens are allowed to vote once in a few years. Voting in a government would amount to giving it a blank cheque to do as it pleases (since it has “obtained the mandate of the people”). If anyone is dissatisfied, he or she can only wait for the next occasion of voting to express dissatisfaction. The ballot becomes the only permissible means of expression.
The absurdity of that argument is obvious. It is nothing more than a crude political exercise in insulting the people’s intelligence.
The pursuit of equality notwithstanding, all societies are (to a smaller or larger extent) organised in a way that favours the rich and powerful, who have the ability and the resources to change things or make things happen to better suit themselves.
Those who are far less fortunate, and those without wealth or power, possess only the desire to have their plight heard and known by as many others as possible, and the hope that with that things may change for the better for them. Public assemblies give these persons an effective voice, since other less demonstrative and more intimate channels of lobbying in our politics-driven world are not available to them. Suppressing such voice, and dashing such hope, will only lead to increasing oppression and destabilisation.
In a true democracy, in order for stability and prosperity to last, people must be allowed to express their views freely, and to choose the manner in which they wish to do so, including choosing a public manner by way of peaceful assembly or procession. Allowing the weak to publicly speak out against the powerful is one of the hallmarks of a democracy. Smothering the voice of the minority is the trademark of dictatorship.
In political reality, however, the public expression of views by persons in large numbers, especially if coupled with a free media, is often a real threat, not to public order or security, but to the continuing maintenance of control by those currently in power.
There is no valid reason of principle to deprive citizens of their right of peaceful assembly. But there are powerful political reasons why those in control would want to do exactly that. These reasons are, in truth, self-serving, though they wear the false name of public order or security.
YEO YANG POH is former Bar Council chairman.