“We are here to assemble peacefully! Agreed?!” the man with the loudhailer asked the crowd.
“Setujuuuuuuu!!!” they roared in response.
“We are not here to riot! Agreed?!”
“We must be patient while we wait for the verdict to be announced. Let us now recite prayers of peace and praises to the Prophet!”
The crowd slowly but rhythmically chanted the ‘selawat’, as columns of policemen behind a wall of red shields looked on directly opposite them.
This was the scene at the bridge on Leboh Pasar Besar on the morning of April 14th, judgement day, the day Anwar Ibrahim would know if he would be a free man or spend the next years of his life in prison.
Hundreds of the demonstrators had been converging on the courthouse complex since early morning, but found their way blocked by hundreds of red-helmeted policemen positioned at every conceivable entry point into Dataran Merdeka. Prevented from proceeding any further beyond the bridge, the crowd sat on the road and chanted prayers as heated negotiations were being conducted with senior police officers to allow the crowd to go to the courthouse.
It was a colourful crowd. There were men in motorcycle helmets, white cloth skull-caps, scarves and bandannas in blue, white, green and red - depending upon which political party they were sympathetic. One individual tried to preach the message of opposition unity by wearing a Parti Keadilan flag as a scarf, with a PRM badge adorning it, a Lim Guan Eng t-shirt and a PAS flag as a cape! Everywhere amongst the crowd, party flags were fluttering in the cool morning wind, together with banners that shouted the message for the day in big, bold, red letters: “Anwar Is Not Guilty. Mahathir Is Guilty.” Others carried small wooden signposts declaring “The People Are The Judge”.
There was suddenly a cheer from the crowd as people threw bundles of leaflets into the air and a shower of paper descended upon the crowd. They rose as one and scrambled to pick up leaflets from the ground or grab them as they floated down to the ground. “Duit! Duit!” someone shouted, to a roar of laughter from the crowd, as he ran around picking up leaflets and passing them to others.
“The people reject the cruel verdict on Anwar” was the title of the leaflet. It looked as though there were some who expected what the outcome of that morning was going to be.
At around 10:30 am, a red water cannon truck appeared and stopped menacingly just behind the wall of police shields, to loud jeering from the crowd - but they remained seated on the road. The negotiations with the police became more intense and heated, until finally former ISA detainee Malek Hussin took the loudhailer and made an announcement.
“We will move to the National Mosque so we do not obstruct traffic. We will await news of the judgement there.”
The people rose to their feet, turned around and proceeded to walk along the river bank flanking the Central Market. The head of the procession cheered “Reformasi!” repeatedly, punching their fists in the air as a defiant salute, while the centre were loudly singing the “Barisan Kita” and the tail-end of the group continued with the chanting of the ‘selawat’. A group of waitresses at a Central Market restaurant watched the procession pass by and giggled helplessly as a group of young boys teased them. “Nak ikut jalan-jalan, dik?!”
The procession turned into the Dayabumi complex, volunteers directing the traffic to avoid the demonstrators and shouting “Don’t block traffic! Don’t block traffic!” as hundreds of people spilled over the pavement onto the road. A large group of office workers standing behind their glass wall of their office clapped and cheered the procession as it passed by, with the crowd cheering in response. One of the workers rushed out to greet the marchers, saying almost apologetically, “Boss tak bagi kita ambil cuti hari ini!”
The crowd poured out of the Dayabumi Complex and crossed the road towards the National Mosque. Volunteers became human traffic lights as they alternately stopped cars to allow people to cross and stopped the crowd to allow traffic to flow. People were now waving at the crowd from the upper floors of the office complex, with demonstrators waving back and shouting “Apa lambai-lambai saja?! Turunlah!”
By now, it was already well-past 11 o’clock and the sun was blistering hot as the crowd slowly gathered and swelled at the entrance to the National Mosque. The lone stall selling drinks at the entrance was doing a roaring trade satisfying the thirst of the weary walkers, with some demonstrators even helping the stall-owner out by filling up plastic bags with cold, invigorating water.
After a few minutes, Malek Hussein again took the loudhailer to make an important announcement.
“I have just been on the handphone with Ruslan Kasim, who is in the courthouse.”
“Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim has been found guilty of all charges.” The crowd erupted in loud jeers.
“And he has been sentenced to six years imprisonment, beginning today.”
For a moment, it was as though the crowd was struck dumb with disbelief. “Ya Allah!” cried a voice in the crowd, and as the air was filled with loud groans.
A speaker took the loudhailer. “Are you surprised with today’s verdict?”
“Tidaaaaak!!!” the crowd exploded in response.
“How can you expect a verdict of not guilty when what is relevant is made irrelevant?!”
“Betuuuullll!” the crowd shouted.
“But the struggle must continue!”
“Reformasi! Reformasi! Reformasi!”
A helicopter buzzed overhead as the crowd chanted that old battle-cry. A friend suddenly rushed to me. “I just got a call on my handphone from someone in the Selangor Club,” he muttered, barely able to conceal his alarm. “They’ve fired water cannons on a crowd in front of the courthouse!” A cold chill ran down my spine.
“The people reject this sentence!” said PKN Vice President Tian Chua to the crowd. “The people believe that Anwar is not guilty! We will not be fooled! We will not forget! And we will topple Mahathir at the next General Elections!”
The former student leader Hishamuddin Rais then addressed the crowd. “Young people today have shown that you are brave! And if our young people are not brave, our country will be destroyed!”
“Today we have a choice - support what is wrong, or support what is right. Support injustice or uphold justice! Choose!”
“Keadilan!” the crowd yelled in response.
Malek Hussin then took the megaphone again. “I have received a message from the courthouse!” he said, waving his handphone. “It is a message from Anwar!”
The crowd erupted in wild cheers of joy and jubilation. “Brother Anwar says .... ‘Teruskan perjuangan Reformasi!!!’”
A deafening roar of “Reformasi!” exploded as the people punched their fists in the air in defiance of the day’s verdict. The shock of the sentence announcement had been forgotten. In its place was a burning desire to carry on the struggle.
The crowd surged en masse towards the direction of the courthouse. We passed by a lone traffic policeman. “Take pity on his children!” a man cried out to the policeman, pointing to a poster of Anwar. “Mereka tak ada tempat berteduh!”
The sea of people poured into the tunnel under the British Council leading to Dataran Merdeka, chanting “Reformasi!” every step of the way. As we emerged out of the darkness of the tunnel, we already saw a parked water cannon truck spraying a crowd at the Dayabumi complex. Our crowd stopped momentarily but pressed on ahead. Without warning, the water cannon truck started its engine and roared towards our direction, a column of red shields following closely behind it.
Within moments, a thick white spray gushed from the water cannon and pounded the column of demonstrators. The crowd scattered, hundreds of people running in all directions, like ants. For a few minutes, a few individuals stood firm in the middle of the road, not moving, sheltering themselves from the jet of acid with their flags, like people caught in a flash thunderstorm. But the noxious fumes from the spray were just too overpowering and they too finally retreated.
A section of the crowd fled into the Dayabumi office complex, while the rest retreated back into the tunnel. The truck kept on advancing, the water cannon turrets swinging right and left, sometimes spraying to the Dayabumi crowd, sometimes spraying at the tunnel entrance.
The crowd had to evacuate the tunnel, the narrow enclosed area being too thick with the fumes of the noxious gas emitted by the foam. Our eyes were by now streaming with tears and our skin stung with pain. People staggered out of the tunnel overcome with the fumes, coughing and gagging as they fled the approaching truck. It stopped momentarily at the tunnel entrance while a column of police formed their ranks at its side.
The crowd waited at the other end of the tunnel, still choking from the fumes and anticipating another assault. It came minutes later. The truck lunged forward at full speed, with the red shields running in formation, and the crowd again scattered in all directions. “Oi, jangan lari sana - situ lagi bahaya!” someone shouted as a group of demonstrators ran up the road leading to Bukit Aman!
I and a few others practically dived down the flight of stairs that lead to the Ministry of Health complex, while the rest dashed for the divine protection of the National Mosque. We retreated to a tree just beyond what we estimated would be the range of the water spout as the truck stopped at the head of the stairs and just waited menacingly, its engines still running. Seconds later, the column of police on foot arrived and halted at the side of the truck, glaring menacingly at the drenched demonstrators below as we glared back at them above.
The impasse lasted a few tense minutes, as the sound of screaming sirens in the distance filled the air, punctuated by the occasional bursts of exploding gas canisters. The air was thick with fear - we could see that the barrel of the turret was trained directly on us, and the Red Helmets were just less than fifty metres away - but one dedicated soul still had the presence of mind to hand out PRM membership forms to the panting demonstrators!
By 12:30 pm, the truck and Red Helmets retreated slowly back to Dataran Merdeka and we cautiously climbed up the stairs back to the main road to check if the coast was clear. The water cannon and police still blocked the entrance to Dataran Merdeka and the tunnel was now deserted, littered with abandoned posters, flags, shoes, slippers and even a jacket. There was not a single soul on the road in front of the courthouse.
I crossed the road and proceeded to the Dayabumi complex. In the underground courtyard, scattered groups of people were gathered around a fountain, wiping the stinging acid off their arms and faces, while others just sat on the floor, coughing the poison out of their lungs, exhausted. The air was still thick with fumes. Curious office workers, just leaving their offices for lunch, were talking to protesters, asking what happened, some buying drinks and fruits for the weary demonstrators. One young executive lent a sobbing girl his handphone - her boyfriend had apparently been beaten and had to be taken to a nearby clinic, and she needed to call his parents.
I emerged at the open courtyard on the other side of the building, near the bridge crossing over to Central Market. Everyone was looking skywards. Looking up, I saw thousands of leaflets being showered from the roof of the Dayabumi building, like a flock of thousands of white birds, glistening in the searing afternoon sun, gliding slowly to the ground and being whisked by the wind far and wide across the city, as though it were a message delivered from the heavens.
On one of the floors of the building, a PKN flag was unfurled in bold defiance.
As I was watching this spectacle, I suddenly heard the distant hum of a familiar tune. From my high vantage point, I surveyed the area and saw a group of demonstrators coming from the direction of the National Mosque and moving towards Central Market, singing ‘Barisan Kita’ as they marched. Dozens of people in the courtyard who were flat on their backs with exhaustion just jumped up with new energy and ran towards the approaching group.
By the time the group had reached Central Market, it had swelled to many hundreds - little pockets of stragglers from that first FRU charge joining the group as it marched through the pedestrian mall, singing and chanting “Reformasi!”
As the group reached the junction near the Leboh Pasar clock tower, it collided with another group coming from the opposite direction. People at the head of the procession hugged and embraced as the two groups merged into one, the cheers of “Reformasi!” getting louder and louder as they converged and marched towards Dataran Merdeka, back to the bridge where it had all started that morning.
Again, a water cannon and a wall of shields blocked the path. The crowd sat in front of the sinister truck, its turrets still dripping with the acid it had spouted minutes before. A speaker with a loudhailer addressed the crowd.
“Pak Lah telah berjanji polis akan mesra dengan rakyat! Mereka mesra tak hari ini?!”
“Tidakaaaaak!” the crowd roared back angrily. “Zalim! Zalim!” “Pak Lah penipu!” “Pak Lah kena JE!”
Three badly beaten demonstrators walked through the crowd. Their faces were badly bruised and swollen, one of them with blood flowing freely down his cheek and neck, another had his head swathed in blood-stained bandages. “Zalim! Zalim!” the crowd angrily chanted as people came up to the three to shake their hands.
Tian Chua began speaking at the head of the crowd, right in front of rows of glaring policemen, and I could see that even his face was bruised. “Tian kena pukul!” someone shouted angrily and the crowd again began jeering loudly. The anger was approaching boiling point.
Suddenly, it all happened in a flash. A thick spout of acid shot out of the water cannon and cloaked the crowd in its stinging spray. The people sitting in front were the first to feel the full impact of the volley, clearing the way for the columns of Red Helmets advancing with rattans swinging. I could not see what was happening in front as a wave of people fled in panic directly towards me. A woman shrieked loudly as the crowd scattered in the direction of Jalan Tun H S Lee, trying to avoid buses, cars and motorcycles that were still speeding along Jalan Hang Kasturi.
The truck advanced up to the junction, spraying everything in sight, even onlookers peering from the top floors of the surrounding office buildings. Jalan Hang Kasturi was now cloaked in the noxious gas, as people in the buses stuck at the junction scrambled out, overcome with the fumes and coughing violently. The truck stopped at the junction, waiting for police on foot pursuing stragglers who were overcome and left behind by the first salvo.
The crowd had now retreated to the junction of Jalan Tun H S Lee. Some idiots emptied a municipal rubbish bin, piling rubbish in the middle of the now deserted Jalan Yap Ah Loy and set fire to it. As the bonfire blazed and thick plumes of black smoke rose skywards, this small group started taunting the water cannon truck, shouting “Mari! Mari!”. A number of them started prising paving stones from the pavement and breaking them, hurling the broken pieces at the police.
For some unknown reason, the police did not react at all, but just waited.
Minutes later, another group of protesters approached the bonfire and attempted to put it out. At that moment, the water cannon again attacked, this time spewing yellow dye at the protesters. Again, the protesters retreated, this time to Jalan Silang. I stood behind a pillar at the junction of Jalan Yap Ah Loy and Jalan Tun H S Lee as the water cannon stopped just a few metres away, on the other side of the junction. In front of me, I saw a long row of goldsmiths and pawn shops and thought it strange that 'rioters' would forsake such rich pickings.
Suddenly, a man grabbed me by the arm from behind. “Are you Sabri Zain?” he asked me grimly. I cursed myself for having stood so close to the police lines and expected the man to whip out a pair of handcuffs from his jacket anytime. “Yes, I am,” I stuttered. His grim frown turned to a broad smile. “I thought so. I’ve read your articles in Harakah. Saw you on NTV as well. You’d better get out of here. You can’t do Reformasi much good from a lock-up. We’ve had enough martyrs for today.”
I gladly took his advice and happily made my way towards the Bangkok Bank junction. I couldn’t have gone a minute sooner. Just moments after, the water cannon attacked again and I could see protesters scattering towards the direction of Pudu Raya. About 100 metres away, along Jalan Hang Kasturi, a second water cannon was spraying the road.
Weaving my way around the back alleys and side roads of Leoh Pasar, I met a foreign journalist friend. He was bathed in sweat, panting with exhaustion and had obviously following the demonstrations since morning. Yet, he still had a tie on, his sleeves were properly buttoned and he hadn’t a single crease on his shirt. “I can be showered by water cannons all over KL - but my tie will still be straight!” he declared proudly.
It was already 2:00 in the afternoon. I made my way round behind the advancing screen of water cannons, along Jalan Tun H S Lee towards Masjid Jamek. Another large crowd had gathered in front of the Masjid Jamek LRT station, a cordon of water cannons and FRU blocking their path to Dataran Merdeka. Jalan Tun Perak was strewn with rubbish and burning dustbins. I squatted on the stairs of the LRT station - hungry, thirsty and weak with exhaustion. “I’m getting too old for all of this,” I thought to myself.
Minutes later, the water cannon attacked, with Red Helmets running behind. The crowd fanned out in all directions and the wave of people swept me back into Jalan Tun H S Lee towards Central Market. As I ran at full speed down Jalan Tun H S Lee and turned the corner into Leboh Pasar Besar, another column of police were forming ranks just metres ahead of me. In a flash, I swerved into a side alley leading to Central Market.
Just moments later, my left leg was hit by the most excruciating pain. I crumpled to the ground as massive cramps stabbed my calf. I sat there unable to move and writhing in pain for what seemed an eternity, waiting for the pain to subside, praying that the columns of police just a few metres round the corner would not mount a charge.
A group of students running into the alley spotted me. Two of them helped me up on my feet, while another grabbed my camera bag and we hobbled into a nearby restaurant. I offered to buy them all the fried chicken they could eat, but they smiled and politely declined. “Don’t lose your receipt,” one of them reminded me as they left. “It’ll prove you’re a customer and not a demonstrator!”
It was three o’ clock before the pain had subsided and I felt strong enough to walk. I limped to the LRT station, homeward bound, the sound of distant shouting and police sirens still ringing in my ears.
I’d had enough for the day. Enough running, enough pain, enough cruelty, enough brutality, enough anger, enough hate.
There is just so much a man, a people, a nation can take. Enough is enough.
[Postscript: A friend of mine, Ali, visited Tian Chua at the police station later that day. Ali was standing in front of a man and did not realise that that man sitting right in front of him was his friend Tian. He had been beaten beyond recognition.]
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