Water cannons in Cambridge

Sabri Zain's Cambridge Diaries

Water cannons in Cambridge
October 7th, 2000

Having been a keen supporter of Amnesty International since my younger, more foolish days as an engineering student in Greenwich way back in the Jurassic Age (i.e. the early 1980s), I was quite delighted to find out that there was a rather active chapter of the international human rights group based in Cambridge, where I now work. I was even more delighted to find out that, by a happy coincidence, their first major activity at the opening of the University term this October was something very close to home for me - a peaceful protest to coincide with a visit of my very own Prime Minister to our fair (if slightly chilly) city.

The protest was to be held on Saturday 7th October at 9am, during the opening of the Cambridge University Malaysia Society (CUMAS) conference on "Malaysia in the New Millenium". A group of Palestinian students had actually wanted Amnesty to help them organise a demonstration on the same date, to protest the recent atrocities in Israel and Palestine. However, the group kindly decided to hold their event on Sunday instead, to make way for the Malaysian event. Clear recognition of our great Prime Minister's reputation, no doubt, that a protest against helicopter gunships being used against Palestinian civilians be postponed to make way for his arrival.

Meeting with some of the organisers the night before, I learned that the group had already been warned beforehand not to expect any Malaysian students to join the protest. An anonymous e-mail making its rounds in news lists and Reformasi websites urged Malaysian students in the UK to boycott the conference. "We can send a loud message to Dr. Mahathir," it said. "Malaysians have had enough dictatorial rule, enough lies, enough racial fear and ethnic hatred, enough bailouts and enough injustice."

"He will be saying nothing new - you have read it a thousand times before in the emasculated Malaysian media. And nothing he says will change the sad state of affairs in our great, beautiful country."

"But YOU can make a change, YOU can make a difference - by doing absolutely nothing on October 7th. Boycott the CUMAS Conference, Boycott Mahathir."

Very sensible advice, I thought to myself when I first read it. During a speaking tour of the UK by Parti Rakyat Malaysia President Dr Syed Husin Ali last May, Malaysian officials warned many students, in no uncertain terms, that anyone attending his talks could face rather unpleasant consequences. Talks at one or two venues had to be cancelled due to some of these students, quite understandably, fearing a quite sudden, premature, unplanned trip back to Malaysia.

Anyway, I quite liked the idea of a boycott - its Gandhian passive resistance at its best. And why miss the England-Germany World Cup qualifier just to hear Rais Yatim drone on about how hunky-dory the state of human rights is in Malaysia?

"And this is where we come in," one of the English students organising the protest said. "We appreciate that Malaysian students do face the threat of their scholarships being withdrawn by their government or recriminations at home. We hope that by voicing our concerns about recent human rights abuses in Malaysia, we also give a voice to concerned Malaysians who are silenced by these threats."

It was quite apt that the day our Prime Minister arrived was perhaps the coldest, wettest day in Cambridge since the gloriously sunny summer this year. As we walked from our meeting place in Trinity College to the conference venue at Lady Mitchell Hall, I couldn't help but feel a sharp tinge of curiosity. I've seen first-hand what crowd control means in Malaysia. I've dodged countless water cannons, tear gas canisters and baton-waving FRU riot police during my innocent shopping excursions in downtown Kuala Lumpur during the Reformasi demonstrations of 1998 and 1999. I've seen how even innocent bystanders - school children, old ladies, elderly pensioners - can be sprayed by mace-laden water cannons, tear-gassed at close range or even beaten to a pulp by our brave, courageous riot police. I couldn't help but wonder how the Cambridge County Police would react to our little band of primarily English 'reformists'. This was, after all, my first 'Reformasi' demo in the land that gave us the Internal Security Act.

My curiosity turned to a little anxiety when we reached the parking area of the conference venue. Almost immediately, a senior British police officer approached the Amnesty coordinator Claire. The alarm bells in my head were immediately set off and I made a mental note of the quickest exit route away from the water cannons and columns of riot police. But hang on - there were no water cannons or riot police in sight anywhere. And there were barely half a dozen ordinary constables in sight.

Much to my surprise (and relief), Claire and the police officer exchanged pleasantries and talked about the wet weather, after which the officer very courteously led us to a designated area close to the entrance where we were allowed to protest. "If only the FRU were this accommodating in Dataran Merdeka!" I thought to myself.

Our little group then loudly chanted slogans that would not have been unfamiliar on Jalan TAR two years ago. "Free Anwar! Free All!". "Human rights in Malaysia!". We had a sort of cheer-leader who started off the chants - a young English student who had a booming voice quite disproportionate to her petite size. She later confessed that she has relevant experience, of sorts. She is a choir girl in one of the university's college chapels!

Our little group now consisted of about two dozen enthusiastic protestors - mostly English, a Rwandan, a few French and Germans, and five Malaysians. While the British police just looked on from afar, with their arms folded and looking a little bemused, the Malaysian security personnel present were taking our demonstration pretty seriously. Heavy-set middle-aged men in dark suits, there were dozens of them in the compound - far outnumbering the local constabulary. Some were busy glaring at out little group and feverishly writing their observations in little black note books. Others were making frantic calls on their handphones - probably warning the Prime Minister's entourage that the conference might not be the quiet, little event they expected.

But most were there taking photographs. They took a few pictures of the group but the main focus of their photographic skills were, quite blatantly, on the Malaysians. I myself must have been the subject of at least five rolls of film. And on a bad hair day as well. Our Malaysian paparazzi in blue paid no less attention to the other Malaysians in the group.

And they certainly did not try to hide the fact. Without saying a word, one of them would just come up practically right in front of you and start snapping away until you heard the whir of used film rewinding. Their message was crystal clear - you are being watched and we will find out who you are. It was also a clear warning to any Malaysians inside the conference hall who might be foolishly tempted to join this little band of dissenters.

Just minutes before Mahathir arrived on the scene, there suddenly appeared, as if on cue, a smaller band of 'demonstrators'. A group of about ten Malaysian students, in smart suits and polished shoes, stood at the entrance of the conference hall holding banners that read "We support our country's leaders" ... "We do not want foreign interference into our country's affairs". The other placards they were holding were not very legible, as it was pretty evident that this 'demo' was a hastily-crafted affair - their placards were actually hurriedly-scribbled messages written on the backs of their conference folders! One of the English students found this rather amusing as, because of the way the folders were cut, they looked more like large, white shorts, rather than placards.

That little contingent of the Mahathir Fan Club were a stark contrast to the Amnesty protesters. They just stood rigidly, silently holding their placards in front of our loud, chanting, practically dancing, little group. They were also the most immaculately dressed demonstrators I've yet seen.

Perhaps no one reminded them that their UMNO Youth deputy had said last month that "UMNO does not believe in demos" and demos were like "giving knives to children"!

The Prime Minister finally arrived, not even giving our little group of protesters a backward glance as he walked into the conference hall. He may not have seen us but I have absolutely no doubt that he heard us - the chanting had by now grown to crescendo pitch and our little choir girl was beginning to sound decidedly hoarse.

Our group was there for another three hours, waiting for the Prime Minister to leave so that we could say our fond farewells. At frequent intervals, we erupted into more loud chants - just to wake up anyone who might have fallen asleep during the long, droning speeches in the conference hall.

At about 12:30 pm, the Prime Minister left the press conference and proceeded to his car. This time he did acknowledge our presence, not only giving us a backward glance as he left, but glancing back again to give us a bit of a wave. In what I can only call an elbow-jerk reaction, I happily waved back! An aide walking beside him gave me a wry smile and waved his finger at me, with a look that either meant "You've been a cheeky boy today!" or "We're going to get you soon!" I quite sincerely hope it was the former.

I left that day with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was glad that a group of people - Malaysians and non-Malaysians - concerned about human rights abuses in Malaysia were allowed to express their feelings, peaceably and without hindrance. As I've personally seen far too often, a similar event in Malaysia would no doubt have been scattered by riot police with brutal force. I recalled last week's news reports about the five people arrested in Malaysia - for simply displaying a banner at the Gombak campus of the International Islamic University, calling for the Prime Minister's resignation.

On the other hand, I couldn't help but feel that, for the Malaysians protesting today anyway, the water cannons and FRU batons and tear gas were there today at Lady Mitchell Hall. The only difference was that they were there in different forms - Malaysian officials taking your photographs, others making notes of your every move, the threat of your scholarship being withdrawn, the fear of hell to pay when you are sent home.

Perhaps not as obvious as a black eye, a cracked skull or a crushed spine bone - but tools of repression and silencing of dissent all the same.

But Amnesty's message was heard loud and clear today. And tomorrow is another day - this time, protesting against the killing of civilians by Israel's tools of repression. I wonder if those UMNO supporters protesting this morning would also call that "foreign interference" in another country's affairs?