A Night Out In The Town

April 13th, 1999

We just wanted a night out in the town. Rice with daging masak kicap at our favourite stall near the Bank Negara roundabout. A cool air batu campur after. A stroll round the fountains at Dataran Merdeka. Just a quiet night out in the town.

So imagine our surprise when the significant other and I when we arrived at the Dataran Merdeka at 8:30 in the evening, only to find a tight security cordon thrown around it, with hundreds of rattan-wielding policemen swarming all over the place. Both ends of Dataran Merdeka were jammed with parked police trucks, buses and landrovers - I counted at least two dozen vehicles - with the two menacing red water-cannon trucks guarding each end of the square.

We had to run the gauntlet of the security cordon in order to get to our stalls, weaving our way through the police vehicles with a great deal of trepidation. The pavements were filled with police personnel - red helmeted officers in green uniforms and wielding wooden rattans. They were smoking, resting, joking among themselves or just sitting down looking utterly bored. We walked through the police ranks trying to maintain as much of a semblance of calm and nonchalance as possible in the face of such a massive display of brute force.

“It’s like a war zone,” whispered the significant other. “And we’re walking right in the middle of it!”

We had heard that students had planned to hold a candle-light vigil at the Dataran Merdeka to await the delivery of the sentence, oops, I mean the verdict for the Anwar Ibrahim trial the next morning. But the square seemed very quiet, the only large groups of people there being police and a large press contingent waiting for something to happen. “There are more journalists here than demonstrators,” a foreign journalist friend lamented.

There was some excitement when a lone man with a lit candle suddenly appeared. About 20 men ran towards him and the lone demonstrator quickly took to his heels, fleeing like the wind - while covering the candle with his hand to ensure the flame did not go out! It was a hilarious spectacle because, unknown to the demonstrator, the 20 men chasing him were not plainclothes policemen but press cameramen desperate for something to photograph!

At 9:30, more police trucks started arriving, though I don’t know for what - there wasn’t even a hint of a demonstration about to take place. “There’s nothing happening here,” the significant other complained. “The police are just sitting around talking to people like us.” I had to cautiously remind her that those “people like us” were more than likely plainclothes Special Branch or CID officers.

We proceeded to Central Market and suddenly saw a large crowd of people running on the pavement as we turned into the alley leading to Leboh Pasar. “Something’s happening!” the significant other shrieked excitedly. “Yes, something is happening - their bus has arrived,” I said, as the crowd rushed into the No. 18 bus to Jalan Bukit Bintang.

At about ten o’ clock, we were about to call it a night when I suggested that we just take a short stroll along the river bank opposite Masjid Jamek. The significant other had stubbed her toe earlier that day and was limping painfully as walked towards Benteng. “You’re in great condition to be running away from riot police if we bump into a demonstration,” I remarked as she moaned loudly.

No sooner had I said that when we turned the corner at the Hongkong Bank building and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of hundreds of students chanting “Reformasi!”.

Someone started giving a fiery speech on a loudhailer as more and more students poured in from the direction of Masjid Jamek. Talking about everything from the dismissal of Tun Salleh Abas to tomorrow’s verdict on the Anwar Ibrahim trial, the speaker’s tirade on the need for justice and reforms was punctuated every few seconds by wild cheers of “Reformasi!” and “Hidup Mahasiswa!”.

The night light was lit with the flash of cameras and the glare of TV lights as the press corps descended on the demonstration and a wall of microphones stood poised before the speaker’s face. “Mahasiswa tidak gentar! Mahasiswa menuntut keadilan!” he exclaimed, as the crowd energetically cheered him on.

Suddenly a long banner was unfurled, boldly declaring the words “Mahasiswa bersama rakyat ke arah memulihkan sistem keadilan Malaysia!”. On it was a mosaic of hundreds of signatures from well-wishers and supporters, to which I place my own little paw mark. Dozens of candles were already lit and placed on the ground alongside the banner, illuminating the darkness of the Benteng with their flickering flames. There were candles of all sizes - from long, white ‘blackout’ candles to small two-inch birthday cake candles of all colours! Pretty soon, some people even lit bright red and green paper lanterns and the demonstration was transformed into a veritable festival of lights as camera flashes, candles and lanterns flashed, flickered and glowed in the darkness of the night.

The crowd soon broke into a rousing chorus of “Barisan Kita” and the words of the Reformasi anthem boomed and echoed into the dark side roads and alleyways of the Benteng. The crowd sang and swayed, hundreds of dark shadows against the backdrop of the palm-covered Masjid Jamek across the river and under the stern watchful eye of Bukit Aman Police Headquarters in the lit up distance.

“The police are at the wrong place!” the significant other observed. “But they are going to be here anytime now!” True enough, about half an hour later, I spotted a large group of uniformed and plainclothes policemen who were waiting across the river suddenly make their way towards us. We retreated behind the corner of a building and almost bumped into a muscular man in a leather jacket hiding there and talking into a walkie-talkie!

After packing the significant other off home in a taxi, I returned to the Benteng. The police grabbed the signed banner and started pushing the crowd towards the LRT station, with a police officer loudly bawling “Kamu masih pelajar! Jangan buat kerja bodoh!” A group of people in the mosque across the river shouted “Reformasi!” as the crowd retreated to the LRT station and began filling up both sides of the road there. Cars and motorcycles honked their support at the cheering and chanting crowd, with eager students waving at cars and shouting “Hon! Hon!”

A traffic jam soon developed as the road became a sea of people, motorcycles and cars. A police car was hopelessly stuck in this mess, and I could see a senior officer in the vehicle angrily screaming orders into his radio handset. The din became deafening as the sound of shouts, cheers, singing, horns, revving engines and the rumble of LRT trains on the tracks above us rose to a crescendo.

A senior police officer strode among the crowd, screaming at the top of his lungs “Beredar! Beredar kau dari sini! Baliklah!” - but to no avail. There suddenly appeared a large column of about 50 riot police, which split into two groups and marched towards the crowd. Once column of police chased the crowd towards the Lebuh Ampang area, everyone running in all directions away from the approaching policemen. I positioned myself in front of an ATM machine and pretended to be an innocent customer withdrawing as other people fled around me. My heart raced as the policemen strutted past me towards the fleeing demonstrators - they obviously didn’t notice that I was trying to insert an EZY Video Rental card into a ATM machine!

The crowd disappeared into the dark alleys of Lebuh Ampang and the column of police swung back and proceeded to pursue the other section of demonstrators into the Masjid India area. Another column of about 20 policemen had, in the meantime, formed a line of defence guarding the entrance of Masjid Jamek, to prevent all the scattered students from regrouping in the mosque.

The LRT area had by now been cleared and I proceeded back to the Benteng, towards Jalan Tun H S Lee. I passed by a group of students whistling the tune of “Barisan Kita” in unison, as though they were soldiers off to the battlefield. Here and there, individuals who had been scattered earlier began gathering in small groups in front of banks, shops, restaurants, bus stops - sweating profusely and panting from their late night jog. “Semua orang bersepah-sepah!” a young girl commented as she vainly searched for her friends.

I bumped into a group of friends and we drove to the Jalan Tun H S Lee Police Station, where we waited outside to hear of friends who may have been arrested. Outside the station, a group of students were vainly trying to contact friends on their handphones and we learned that four people had been arrested - though we did not know where they were being taken. Groups of students were maintaining vigils outside other police stations, just in case the detainees were brought there.

When we left around midnight, we still did not know if the four had been brought to another station or were still in the police truck or had been released.

On the way home, we passed by Dataran Merdeka and saw that there was still a heavy police presence there. We took a slow drive around Jalan TAR and Kampung Baru and saw scattered crowds of people still walking the streets or congregating in front of office buildings, road junctions and bus-stops.

It was going to be a long night - and a long day ahead.

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