A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Lantern in the darkness
October 5th, 1998

One day, long, long ago, the Jade Emperor got very angry with the people living in a certain part of China because they killed his prized goose. In his wrath, he vowed he would set fire to the land so that all people, animals and plants would be burnt. This was to take place on the night of the fifteenth day of the lunar year. A kind-hearted fairy learned of this plan, and wanted to prevent it from happening. She told the people to light lots of lanterns on the night - at home, on the streets, and in the fields. When the time came, the Jade Emperor looked down from heaven and saw the whole region lit up. He mistook the brightness to be a big fire and was pleased that the death of his prized goose had been avenged. He never mentioned setting the land ablaze again. To commemorate their good fortune, people have hung lanterns on the night of the first full moon every year ever since.

This is just one of the many legends that surround the origin of the Chinese Lantern Festival. However, this tale of a cruel despot being fooled by his people seemed quite apt when I first read about this evening's Lantern Festival procession from Independence Square to the Central Market organised by the human rights group SUARAM. With the violent demonstrations rocking the country in the past few weeks, it did seem as though the whole country was going to be set ablaze by a cruel despot.

There was some confusion when we first arrived at Independence Square - there seemed to be no one there! We were told to meet at eight in the evening near the fountain at the Square - not realising that there were fountains at both ends of it! Fortunately, we saw a few glowing lanterns at the other end of the Square and proceeded there. The funny thing is, there were a couple of police trucks and a squad car waiting at our end as well and they sped off to the far end at about the same time we did!

There were about 100 - 150 men, women and children - of all races (unlike the predominantly Malay crowds of last week). No loud shouting or slogans - I didn't hear the word "reformasi" uttered once, except in hushed tones. But there was a lot of laughter, embracing of friends and children playing with candles. Dozens of police and FRU troops were scattered around the area - and they made their presence felt. Frequently, they marched in single file through the crowd, looking at every person from head to toe as they passed by.

One of the troopers stopped and asked me what I was doing here holding a lantern. "You're wearing Malay dress, you must be a Malay. What are you doing here? This is a Chinese festival. Why don't you just go home?!" he growled. "We're a multi-racial nation," I replied. "We celebrate our festivals together, we mourn our sorrows and share our fears together". He then glared at the white ribbon I was wearing on my shirt - the reform movement's symbol of justice. For a while, I was half-expecting another interrogation about what that meant.

Later, our little crowd of demonstrators proceeded along Jalan Raja, round the world's tallest flagpole and across the road to the Federal High Court building. Some of us had lit our lanterns too early in the evening and our candles were slowly dying out - but some kind soul went up and down the column replenishing us with fresh candles. There weren't enough lanterns to go around for everyone - so some lit candles, a few even waved torchlights about. It must have been a sight - this long line of red and green lights glowing in the Independence Square that was cloaked in the darkness of the night.

As soon as we crossed the road, we were stopped by the police and told to disperse - we were not allowed to march to the Central Market. When we protested, the officer in charge said we were free to go to the Central Market if we liked but only as individuals or couples. We were not allowed to move as a procession, despite us lining up there in very neat, straight rows of three, just like schoolkids promising to behave ourselves! It felt so much like morning school assembly.

In the end, we relented and proceed to the Central Market as "individuals". The trouble was, these "individuals" decided to go there all at the same time and by the time we'd walked less than a hundred feet, we were a procession again - this time with no nice, neat rows!

The procession passed by the main bus stop at the Central Market. It was at that very spot last Saturday where baton-waving FRU riot police were charging past me. My significant other made sure she reminded me of that fact, as we looked furtively around for any police presence. At the bus stop, Reformasi leaflets were distributed to the throngs of curious commuters. One enthusiastic roadside drink vendor wanted to sell me a glass of "air tebu reformasi" (Reformasi sugar cane water) to quench my thirst! I respectfully declined.

We ended the evening at the Central Market entrance with a few words of inspiration from the SUARAM organisers about the festive celebration and why we were here, and then sang the national anthem Negara Ku. No trouble, few hassles, and the message got across to a lot of people.

I heard that this afternoon's Women's Gathering in front of the Royal Palace was a bit more exciting - about 400 people turned up, despite certain parties circulating rumours that it was cancelled! Someone in this evening's lantern procession told an amusing anecdote about the women throwing tissue paper at the FRU!

If they thought the riot police had beaten the fight out of the Reformists these past few weeks, they were dead wrong. We've only just begun - we're just thinking of how to do it without getting our skulls cracked by police or getting free showers from water cannon. Hopefully, the Jade Emperor would decide not to set our country ablaze.