Rain of Terror

October 24th, 1998

It was five o’clock in the evening, October 24th, 1998.

My significant other and I had gone into Kuala Lumpur with a certain degree of trepidation. Just last week, demonstrators were assaulted as they were dispersing. Many were chased across the city, hunted, pursued, beaten and locked up. The very next day, even family who were visiting them at the Dang Wangi Police Station were scattered by FRU. Yesterday, water cannons scattered crowds at Dataran Merdeka. The seat of our democracy, the Parliament Building, was surrounded by police, as though it was under siege. And, indeed, one may argue, all these things were happening exactly because thousands did feel that our democracy was under siege.

Rumours were flying that people were bringing kerosene and petrol bombs to the demonstrations this Saturday. Many felt that these rumours were started by people who wanted the police to crack down hard on the demonstrators and show no quarter. I didn’t want to take any chances either way. We made sure we didn’t carry any bags or anything that could be even suspected of containing incendiary material. We were, after all, not rioters - we just wanted to get my mother a pair of slippers from Jalan TAR!

Our taxi took us past Dataran Merdeka, where there were trucks and water cannon at both ends. As we entered Jalan Raja Laut, we saw half a dozen trucks and yet another water cannon were parked in front of Dewan Bandaraya. We got off at the rear entrance of Pertama Kompleks and there were already a dozen police manning the entrance.

When we emerged at the front entrance of Pertama Complex, we were met by a huge crowd of shoppers. I say ‘shoppers’ because they were not angry young men - there were children, elderly men and women, families. No one was shouting, or chanting or singing. There were no banners or placards. People seemed to be just milling around, talking to each other, minding their own business. I remarked to my significant other that things looked as busy and as normal as any other normal day in front of the popular shopping mall.

As we were pushing our way through the crowd, en route to Jalan TAR, we suddenly heard a resounding cheer of “Reformasi!” roared from the crowd. “Yes, it is a normal day,” quipped my significant other.

That shout was followed by a resounding “Allah Akbar!” and the police swooped in. A dozen plainclothes policemen emerged from the crowd and two or three men were pulled out, handcuffed and dragged by their hair by plainclothes policemen. They were paraded in the middle of the road, in front of the crowd, as if the police were trying to make a point - they were going to get real tough today.

The crowd became silent after that - but they were seething. As we pushed through the crowd, you could hear people swear under their breaths “anjing”, “zalim” .....

A truck then arrived on the scene and someone read the Police Act over a loudhailer. This is an illegal assembly. RM 10,000 penalty. One-year jail. Disperse now.

The crowd did disperse. A line of policemen moved forward and waved us away, down Jalan TAR. Another line of policemen directed us into a back alley, round to the Coliseum cinema and back to the main road. We crossed into the Masjid India area but this time all entrances were blocked with even more police than there were last week. Some officers even took the opportunity to do some shopping themselves in the Masjid India Saturday market.

As we walked along these back alleys, we could hear sirens wailing nearby. It would sound for five or ten seconds, stop for a few minutes, then wail again. And each time it wailed, you could hear a deafening silence descend upon the packed market crowd. People would be stopped in their tracks, listening to the wailing, as if mesmerised. The air was thick with fear.

A lot of people were coming into the market from the direction of Jalan Campbell and I could hear snatches of conversations as they passed by which indicated to me something was definitely happening. “Depa tumbuk dia sampai pengsan....” ... “....dapat tangkap gambar, tak?” ..... “dengak mereka tembak gas....”

We entered Jalan Campbell just minutes before it was blocked off as well. I surveyed the scene from under the huge billboard of the Odeon cinema and it was as though the whole area was in a state of curfew. Except for squads of heavily armed and armoured policemen, all four roads leading to the Odeon junction were blocked off and deserted. Passers-by were milling on the pavement not sure where to go - there were lines of police blocking every conceivable exit from the area.

We heard shouts from the Pertama Complex area and saw at least two dozen policemen run towards the complex shouting obscenities. A number of them had a boy pinned against the wall and a squad of other policemen surrounded him. They were kicking him mercilessly.

Moments later, we saw a man being dragged on the ground by his feet by policemen at the other end of the junction, near the Campbell Complex. At first I thought he was unconscious, but then I heard loud moans of pain and saw his eyes were open. His face seemed swollen and blood was oozing out of his ears. He was being dragged by men in red ski masks, and they were surrounded by other men in plainclothes, but with red ribbons tied on their shirt sleeves. A uniformed police officer approached one of the men in ski masks and pointed to Pertama Complex. “Okay ... now go to that lot of people over there and ‘handle’ them.

There were so many plainclothes officers lurking in the crowds, they probably needed the red ribbons for quick identification. There were stories that a number of plainclothes Special Branch officers had been beaten up by their own brother officers in last week’s demonstrations. Hearing this story, a leading social activist had commented “God works in mysterious ways.”

Then another dozen or so policemen emerged out of nowhere from a nearby alley towards our little group. They growled at us “Jalan! Jalan! Apa tengok lagi? Bodoh!”, which they punctuated with curses, obscenities and swings of their batons to hurry us along. We complied and walked away towards Campbell Complex again. As we were walking, I detected a certain acidic whiff in the air and asked my significant other of she smelled anything. “Yes,” she said, “I smell trouble.”

At that point, a young Chinese reporter working for one of the foreign news wire services walked alongside us and asked us “Are you by-standers?”. I responded with a resounding “Yes!”.

“Are you shocked by what has happened here?” he asked

“No. It’s happened a lot. They’re not here to protect people or property. They’re here obeying the orders of their master.”

“Were you here last week? And what ....”

But before our enthusiastic journalist could finish his question, our interview was cut short by the sound of loud “whoosh!” behind us. Turning around, I saw a red water cannon truck just 10 metres away shoot a thick plume of water into the air, like a geyser. The water rose into the air and started to descend in a thick blanket upon us.

It was pandemonium. Almost immediately, everyone ran in every direction, in the wake of the acid rain. Within seconds, you could smell the choking fumes that burned your eyes and stung the skin. The road ahead was blocked by a thick wall of FRU personnel and, after seeing what had happened to the man who was dragged by his feet, we had no wish to be greeted by those guardians of the law. We sprinted into the Odeon cinema parking area towards Medan Tuanku. People were scrambling over cars trying to find the shortest distance between the water cannon and safety. In the car park, I ran past a friend I had met just the day before. We said a quick “Hi!”, exchanged smiles and continued running in different directions. The phrase “I ran into an friend” has a completely new meaning for me now.

We ran into a side road, and collapsed in exhaustion on the pavement in front of a popular North Indian restaurant in the area. There were hundreds of other people milling about. Many were wiping their arms and faces with cloth, trying to get the sting out of their skin. Most had handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses and I myself started coughing uncontrollably. Asthma and tear gas are not a good combination.

A friend we met there said that he saw flyers with Anwar Ibrahim’s photograph being dropped from a nearby building. A passerby stopped and picked one up. Three plainclothes policemen very quickly descended upon him and started kicking and punching him. Another bystander approached them and pleaded for them to stop. They handcuffed the good Samaritan and he was herded into a truck.

In the Medan MARA area, hundreds of people were trapped in a tunnel that was packed with men, women and children - many crying, shouting in panic, tending wounds they received as they fell to escape charging policemen. The air was thick with acidic fumes - and terror.

One poor boy wanted to go into the Pertama Complex underground car park to retrieve his motorcycle. A uniformed police officer said police were searching the car park and no one was allowed in. He suggested the boy wait in the area for a while. No sooner had he walked away a few steps when the boy was suddenly kicked in the back by a laughing plainclothes policeman. The uniformed officer just looked on.

An elderly lady passed by, soaked and weeping - I don’t know from fear or from tear gas. She was mumbling to herself. “I was only waiting for a bus. Why do this to an old woman who was only waiting for a bus.?”

I then saw a group of reporters from a local English daily. They had seen some beatings and they were angry. “Bastards”, said one of them. That would make a great front-page headline I thought to myself. Perhaps there is hope yet for our local media - they do seem to have feelings like the rest of us.

Another reporter came by and said “Chow Kit, Chow Kit ... they’re going ....”. Before he could finish, we heard that loud whoosh again. Another water cannon truck was driving up Jalan TAR towards us and the crowd ran helter skelter again. A wave of people swept us further into Medan Tuanku and towards Kampong Baru. I fell over a motorcycle parked by the pavement as I was swept by the stampeded of terrified on-lookers.

My significant other dashed into a fast food joint and was frantically waving at me to join her. I remembered the accounts I’d heard about FRU men storming into a fastfood joint in Dayabumi last Saturday and just picking up at random people standing in queue for food. I ran towards her as dozens of terrified people ran in the opposite direction and pulled her away as we fled towards Kampong Baru. In the stampede, the poor dear lost one of her shoes.

Every road and alley we turned to - columns of FRU and police were waiting in ambush. Tables and chairs were strewn all over the roads and pavements as panic-stricken diners abandoned their stalls and high tea in search for safety in the wake of the acid spray.

We walked towards Jalan Ampang - these people will spray poor and middle class ordinary Malaysians but would surely not want to cause anxiety among the rich and famous of Jalan Ampang. We stopped at the corner of the Bank Industri building where I left my significant in a desperate search for footwear she could use. A young woman walking in bare feet along Jalan Tun Ismail was bound to arouse a certain degree of curiosity among any patrolling policemen. She is usually very picky about the shoes she buys. But the ugly vinyl sandals I brought her fifteen minutes later must have seemed to her like an 800-ringgit Italian-made Gucci at the time.

Lesson number one when you go out shopping - wear fitting running shoes.

It was already 6:30 by then. We had to leave for Petaling Jaya to be at the SUARAM Forum on abolishing the ISA. But we were under no illusion that the situation was back to normal. As our taxi to PJ passed by Jalan Campbell, we could still see hundreds of police closing off the roads, we could still hear sirens wailing, we could see groups of motor cyclists zipping past the traffic as though being pursued. I shuddered to think what else would unfold over the next few hours.

At no point during the evening did I see any hint of violence from the crowd. No one shouted verbal abuse at the police. Traffic was not being obstructed and there was no damage to property. Only twice did the crowd cheer “Reformasi” and Allahu Akbar” , followed by the occasional clapping. None of the flags, banners and placards of last week. For the most part, the thousands of people there just stood and stared at their would-be attackers. That was the extent of the demonstration.

But it was clear that the police were not there to ensure the safety of people and property. They were not even there to stop protesters and pick them up. It was evident what their orders were - clear the streets completely, by whatever means, no matter who’s there - not one dissenter or even suspected dissenter must be left on the pavement. Peaceful or not, they were dissenters and had to be punished. For our country cannot abide with dissent.

And, indeed, they did clear the streets - with brutal efficiency. The many incidents I saw did not indicate the police were being tough or even harsh - they were just plain cruel. But by sowing terror, they planted the seeds of anger and hatred. And they showed the world exactly why thousands of Malaysians have taken to the streets of Kuala Lumpur for six consecutive weeks.

Later that evening, reports indicate that over 30 truckloads of police arrived in Kampung Baru. Police armed with sticks fought protesters throwing stones after police fired tear gas into the mosque in Kampong Baru and sprayed various areas of the district with water cannon. It is thought that at least 300 people have been arrested. Hospital staff said at least 12 demonstrators were brought in for treatment of injuries following the clashes. Police claim one officer suffered minor injuries.

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