The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain


Comrade, fight on April 17th-19th, 1999
 
 

On Wednesday April 14th, the day the verdict for the Anwar Ibrahim trial was delivered, Keadilan Vice President Tian Chua was arrested by police. On that day, he had been assaulted at least three times. On the first occasion, he told reporters that plainclothes policemen attacked him while he was crossing the road and hit him on the head. They took away his handphone and glasses.

The second incident occurred just after a water cannon assault on hundreds of demonstrators at the bridge on Market Square. Just minutes before the assault, with blood from the first beating still streaming down his cheek and mouth, he was pleading with the demonstrators to show calm and patience. “This is a peaceful gathering,” he kept repeating and begged for the police to show restraint. He was seen being repeatedly kicked after being dragged into a police truck.

He is also being charged for attempted suicide - because he sat down in front of a water cannon truck to prevent it from attacking the crowd.

The third assault occurred when he was brought into the Tun H S Lee Police Station near Merdeka Stadium. He was slapped by a police officer until his lip cracked. By this time, his face was so badly swollen that a friend who saw him at the station could not recognise him.

Tian Chua is my friend. I have never met a gentler man, his boyish enthusiasm only matched by his deep commitment to the championing of human rights. We share another bond - like me, he is also an asthmatic.

On Saturday night, a few friends from PRM and I decided to share that evening with him at a candle light vigil held outside the police station where he and a number of other detainees - including ex-ISA detainee Malek Hussain - were being held. Friends and even family were not permitted to see him - but we could still sing songs outside on the street to tell him that there were people that cared.

About two dozen people were gathered across the street from the Jalan Tun H S Lee police - NGO activists, PRM and DAP members, students, lawyers, journalists. We all sat around two clumps of lighted candles on the pavement, and someone started passing around a sheet of paper with some song lyrics on it. We started singing an old, traditional Malay tune, slowly but with spirit, our voices echoing into stillness of the night.

"Geylang, si paku Geylang
Geylang si rama rama
Rakan, terus berjuang
Terus berjuang, bersama-sama.

Rakan, terus berjuang
Terus berjuang,
bersama-sama"
(Comrade, carry on the struggle,
Carry on the struggle,
together).

As though we were seated around a campfire in some dark concrete jungle surrounded by wild beasts of the city, we told each horror stories from the previous days of demonstrations - beatings, whippings, water cannons, running, arrests. Independence Square, Jalan Bandar, Jamek Mosque, the Indian Mosque District, Jalan TAR, Bukit Bintang Road - the stories were the same everywhere. Reports later said that more than 90 demonstrators had been detained that day alone.

I suddenly realised that we were all sitting right in front of a parked car. “We’d better be careful,” I warned. “They might just charge us with attempting to commit suicide!”

At about 9.00 p.m., someone received a call from her handphone - water cannons had arrived at Kampong Baru and they had started spraying. We all groaned at the thought of more beatings and arrests. “At least all the fierce ones will be there, and not here!” someone said, in a vain attempt at cheering us up.

We were about to find out just how ‘fierce’ they were going to be half an hour later when about half a dozen uniformed police officers approached us from the station. The senior officer was very polite, almost pleading “I’ve received orders from the top to ask you to disperse. Please! Disperse! I don’t want ‘them’ to bring a water cannon here to do the job. Please.”

“We’re nearly out of ‘gas’!” he said wearily.

He gave us five minutes to disperse but after a great deal of pleading from us, he relented and gave us ten minutes.

As we were negotiating, two NGO activists entered the station in an attempt to see Tian. We saw them negotiating with officers at the station gate as we sang our last chorus for the evening.

“Geylang, si paku Geylang
Geylang si rama rama
Tian Chua, terus berjuang
Terus berjuang, bersama-sama,
Malek, terus berjuang
Terus berjuang, bersama-sama.”
(Tian Chua, carry on the struggle,
Carry on the struggle,
together,
Malek, carry on the struggle,
Carry on the struggle,
together).

As we were leaving, we suddenly saw the two activists who were attempting to see Tian handcuffed by police and brought into the station. We were not told why they had been being arrested. The two small clumps of candles were still burning brightly in the now deserted pavement.

I later learnt that the two were released four hours later.


Sometime in the afternoon the next day, we received a message that Tian Chua, Malek and a number of other detainees were going to be brought to the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital for medical treatment. Frantic with worry, we rushed to the hospital and arrived there at 4.40 p.m. - just in time to see the police van arrive at the emergency ward ambulance park with a police jeep as escort.

Tian got off the van and was immediately hugged by his waiting parents. He was barefoot, in a red-striped t-shirt and blue striped shorts, with the words ‘Tun H S Lee Lock-Up’ emblazoned ‘proudly’ across it. He walked unsteadily, shuffling his feet, as though in a daze, and he looked haggard, tired and even thinner than he usually is. His face was badly swollen and his left eye looked badly cut and bruised, with small blood clots ringing the eye. It seems to be the season for black eyes in Malaysia now.

Malek and the other detainees followed closely behind, as they were led into the waiting room of the emergency ward. One of the detainees had an open cut on his eyeballs and lacerations across his face. He had apparently been arrested, handcuffed and made to squat on the floor. A policeman then gave him two powerful kicks square on the face with his boots. Like Tian, he had come to the hospital today for his second treatment.

Another of the injured detainees had severe back pains and could not sit down or lie down. Four to five policemen had apparently kicked him on the back in the police truck when he was arrested and as he was being brought into the lock-up.

I and a few other friends waited outside while the lawyers and PRM Secretary-General Dr Sanusi Osman accompanied the detainees in the treatment room. “I can’t go in,” muttered a PRM veteran and a good friend of Tian’s. “I can’t stand seeing him like that,” he said, almost close to tears and brimming with anger.

A man who was waiting for his daughter to be treated asked me if that thin Chinese man was picked up in yesterday’s demonstrations. I told him Tian was arrested four days ago. “But the wounds still look fresh!” he said in surprise. “Was he the one who sat in front of the water cannon?”. I said yes. He nodded knowingly. “I’m not surprised - ‘they’ really enjoy hitting you when you don’t resist. They really enjoy that!”

Tian Chua’s younger sister, Tian Chee, arrived a few minutes later. “This is our only chance to see him,” she lamented. “They don’t even allow the family to visit him at the lock-up” The petite young woman seemed cheerful - but determined. “We must keep up our spirits,” she said, as she passed bottled drinks to Tian’s visitors.

By six o’clock, the other detainees had been treated and were brought back to the police van but Tian had to be brought to an eye specialist elsewhere in the hospital. We stood by the side of the police van as Malek and the other detainees opened the van windows and talked to us.

“Can we visit you at the lock-up?” someone asked.

“Sure you can.” Malek sniggered. “Just pick up a rock and throw it at a policeman at the station - they’ll let you in pretty quick! Otherwise, forget it!”

As we talked, trying to cheer the detainees up, a few of the police guards joined us in conversation - even laughing and joking with us. Malek especially seemed to have a good rapport with them. “I’m trying to get them to change their motto from “Cepat dan Betul” (Quick and right) to “Cepat, Betul dan Adil!” (Quick, right and just!) he joked, as detainees and policemen alike laughed.

When I tried to cheer Malek up by showing him some photographs I had taken of him addressing the crowd at the National Mosque last Wednesday, he even proudly showed the album to his guards, with a few smiling and commenting on how handsome he looked!

I could not help but remember a graphic picture I’d seen over the Internet of Malek taken at the moment of his arrest. He was crouched on the ground, curling his body up into a small ball and covering his head with his arms as at least half a dozen FRU officers kicked him with their boots and battered him with their rattan sticks. Yet here he was, handcuffed, still sporting his bruises from that day - laughing and joking with his captors as though they were long-lost friends.

And those men-in-blue were sharing their cigarettes with the detainees, getting them drinks, showing real compassion, treating them more like comrades than adversaries. Ordinary men who, were it not for an accident of history, could have been our brothers, our friends. How could these have been the same men who battered people on the streets mercilessly? How could these have been the same men who gave Anwar and Tian their respective black eyes?

As we talked and laughed, I looked at the escort jeep that was parked beside the van. The back of the jeep was packed with red shields and helmets. I could not help wonder what is it that makes men change from being like brothers to sworn enemies in the very next moment, breaking the bonds that tie.

What indeed has broken the bonds between Malaysians today, sometimes pitting friend against friend, brother against brother, father against son?

And what would we need to heal those bonds? As we drove home that day and as I write at this very moment, I could not find any easy answers. I do not think there are any easy answers. Like Tian’s, the wounds run deep and the pain is bitter. And it will need the kind of selfless sacrifice and struggle that he has shown. It will have to be a struggle that all Malaysians will have to grapple with, until we do find an answer - together.

“...Rakan, terus berjuang
Terus berjuang, bersama-sama.
Rakan, terus berjuang
Terus berjuang, bersama-sama.”

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