Saturday, July 9, 2011

No Winner In This Madness

KUALA LUMPUR, July 10 (NST) -- Rally organisers claimed the street demonstration yesterday was a success. Police, too, said their operation to curb the riots was a success.
Which meant that the only loser was the man on the street.

Weddings, other celebrations and events were called off as many were afraid to leave their homes, roadblocks caused traffic chaos on several major roads, businesses were shut and taxi drivers complained they could not earn enough to pay their daily rental.

The promises by rally organisers that their march would be peaceful and that it would not affect the public adversely were not kept.

For about four hours from noon yesterday, there were flash points at various spots in the city when supporters of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0), Umno Youth's "Patriots" and hundreds of policemen squared up to each other.

Conspicuously missing were Malay rights group, Perkasa, and Pertubuhan Seni Silat Lincah Malaysia, which in the run-up to yesterday's rally, had threatened violence to stop the Bersih march.

But even without the two groups, the city endured four hours of madness.

Police used water cannon and tear gas to disperse the demonstrators, who police said numbered "about 5,000 to 6,000", but they were defiant. They mocked the authorities and were spoiling for a fight from the beginning.

When the authorities moved in, they moved on, causing the disturbance to spread from Masjid Negara to Dataran Merdeka, KL Sentral, Lebuh Pasar Besar, Jalan Bukit Bintang, Jalan Pudu, Masjid Jamek, Jalan Sultan, Jalan Tun Perak and Kampung Baru.

All these were captured by the foreign media, precisely what the rally organisers wanted, but at what cost to the nation and its people.

In previous weeks, tensions escalated as various parties took sides. A multitude of reasons and justifications were given, but every individual or group which threw itself into the fray eventually fell into one of two camps -- pro-Bersih or anti-Bersih.

Accusations were thrown, abuses hurled. The language of the discourse, whether in the media or in the coffee shops, turned more divisive by the day.

Arrests were made, weapons confiscated, counter-rallies organised. More than three thousand police reports and counter-reports were filed.

The Bersih 2.0 campaign, which had begun with such noble intentions and in such high hopes, was threatening to collapse upon itself. Even among its supporters, there were calls towards creating a local version of the Arab Spring and Tahrir Square, evoking a state of lawlessness and chaos far removed from the democratic ideal it was protecting.

For those old enough to remember, the spectre of May 13, 1969 loomed like a dark cloud over the noise of the squabbling parties. The causes were different then but this is how it had begun -- anger drowning out the voices of reason, discontent washing over the city's streets.

It took the intervention of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to cool hot heads last Sunday, which allowed both sides to return tentatively back towards the road to civil dialogue.

The counter-rallies were called off. Bersih chairman Datuk S. Ambiga agreed to the offer made by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that the rally be held in a stadium.

But that was shortlived. Anywhere but KL, police said, concerned about public safety and security.

As negotiations fell through, Bersih's aims fell by the wayside. What had begun as a call for electoral reform had turned into an all-out campaign against the system of government.

What was clear was that Berish's intentions were hijacked by the opposition coalition as shown in a photograph taken at a press conference at KL Hilton at the height of the rally yesterday.

Ambiga was seated together with parliamentary opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang.

What had begun as a call for strengthening democracy became a battle cry for civil disobedience and yesterday, what the authorities feared most, happened.

People got hurt and almost 1,600 were arrested, including 16 children.

Most appalling was the number of parents who brought their children to the rally, despite the knowledge that events could turn ugly.

They wanted their children to witness "democracy in action". What disturbed many was that many of the children had barely mastered the art of walking, much less the nuances of democracy.

It is too easy to forget when we see a picture of a bloodied and bruised protester splashed on the front pages of the papers, that the person is someone's son, someone's sister, someone's mother, or someone's husband.

So in the end, who won?

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