FACE OFF

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain


A day at the cinema
September 26th, 1998



This evening, the significant other and I decided to catch a movie at the Central Market, and, boy, did we get an action-packed drama!

After buying the tickets, we left Central Market at 5.00 pm and proceeded down to Jalan TAR, to get a belated gift for a friend just before catching the movie. On the way there, we noticed that all the roads leading to Independence Square were blocked by FRU riot police and police barriers, but we thought nothing of it. After the massive rally last Sunday, the police were probably just making sure there’d be no more trouble there this weekend.

But by the time we reached the junction of Jalan TAR and Jalan Raja, there was already a crowd of a few thousand protesters there – faced by FRU barricades, water cannon and troopers, even a line of horse-mounted police. A helicopter was buzzing overhead, and, after about half an hour, more roads and side roads around Independence Square were closed off, with FRU and police barriers stationed at every conceivable entrance. Cars passing by the crowd were honking their support, and there were the occasional cries of "Hidup Anwar!" (Long live Anwar!) and "Lingkup Mahathir!" (To hell with Mahathir!). Nevertheless, the crowd was generally quiet and peaceful.

Around 6.00 p.m., the crowd were asked to disperse, and the people in front of the Jamek Mosque (where I was) started to walk away from the Jalan TAR junction. I couldn’t see what was happening on the other side at the City Hall end of the crowd. They probably did not disperse as quickly as the police liked, because I could just about make out an FRU water cannon spraying in that area (unless, of course, they were watering the City Hall gardens!)

However, as we were making our way on the Benteng river bank back towards Central Market, two or three dozen FRU troopers suddenly shouted and charged the dispersing crowd with shields flying and batons waving. People who were peacefully enjoying the breeze along the river were scattered in the wake of the charge. Mothers were picking up toddlers as the shouting Red Helmets started coming closer. Frightened children started shrieking. Courting couples were running away in each other’s arms, like some weird three-legged race. I covered my significant other’s head with my hands in case some enthusiastic trooper decided to crack it with his baton.

She ran a few times (she prefers that I say "she was tempted to run") but I grabbed hold of her and told her to walk calmly and look confused, as though she were just an innocent bystander wondering what the blazes was going on. "We had done nothing wrong and we should have nothing to be afraid of," I kept repeating to her, trying desperately to half-believe it myself. Thankfully, the troopers ran straight past us as we reached the Hongkong Bank building at the Market Square. I could smell the sweat of the FRU troopers as they sprinted past - one of them even accidentally bumped his shield on my butt as he ran past me. I was half expecting to feel a baton crash into the back of my head at any moment.

The bus stop in front of the Hongkong Bank, which was full of commuters just minutes before, was by now deserted except for two FRU trucks ominously parked there. The Red Helmets had by now fanned out into the side roads leading to the Bangkok Bank and we could see a youth being dragged by his hair towards the trucks by three or four riot policemen. Another FRU team was busy rummaging through the bag of another poor, frightened student.

By the time we reached the Central Market (still pretending as though we were on a casual evening stroll), we’d decided to forget about the movie - we’d had enough excitement for the day. The helicopter was still buzzing above our heads as we took the train home.

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