A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Rain of terror
October 24th, 1998

It was five o’clock in the evening.

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 families who were visiting them at the Dang Wangi Police Station were scattered by riot police. Yesterday, water cannons scattered crowds at Independence Square. 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 new pair of slippers from Jalan TAR!

Our taxi took us past Independence Square, where there were trucks and water cannon at both ends. As we entered Chow Kit Road, we saw half a dozen trucks and yet another water cannon parked in front of City Hall. We got off at the rear entrance of the Pertama Shopping Complex and there were already a dozen police manning the entrance.

When we emerged at the front entrance, 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 weekend day in front of the popular shopping mall.

As we pushed our way through the crowd, en route to Jalan TAR, we suddenly heard a resounding cheer of "Reformasi!" roar from the crowd. "Yes, it is a normal weekend alright," quipped my significant other.

That shout was followed by a resounding "Allahuakbar!" 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 to a waiting police truck. The demonstrators were paraded in the middle of the road, kicked and punched from behind, right in front of the crowd. It was as if the police were trying to drive home 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" (dogs), "zalim" (tyrants) .....

A Ministry of Information 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 Indian Mosque district 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 Saturday flea market.

As we walked along those back alleys, we could hear sirens wailing nearby. It would sound for five to 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 Campbell Road and I could hear snatches of conversations as they passed by which indicated to me something was definitely happening. "They beat him until he was unconscious...", " ... did you manage to take a picture?", "... I heard tear gas canisters fired..."

We entered Campbell Road just minutes before it was blocked off by police. I surveyed the scene from under the huge billboard of the Odeon cinema. 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 of where to go - there were lines of police blocking every conceivable exit from the area.

We heard shouts from the Pertama Shopping Complex across the road and saw at least two dozen policemen run towards the mall 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 Shopping Complex. At first I thought he was unconscious, but then I heard loud moans of pain and saw his eyes were open. His face was 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 the Pertama Shopping 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 mistakenly been beaten up by their own brother officers in last week’s demonstrations. God works in mysterious ways.

We then heard a woman scream and saw a middle-aged woman wearing a scarf being dragged and carried by her arms and legs along the pavement by half a dozen female police officers. Her grief-stricken husband trailed behind, pleading with them to stop. "She hasn't done anything … please let her go ….," he begged in vain.

Then another dozen or so policemen emerged from a nearby alley towards our little group in front of the cinema. They growled at us "Move! Move! What are you gawking at? Idiots!", which they punctuated with curses, obscenities and swings of their batons to hurry us along. We complied and walked away towards Campbell Shopping Complex again. As we were walking, I detected a strange acidic whiff in the air and asked my significant other if she smelled anything. "Yes," she said, "I smell trouble."

At that point, a young Chinese reporter working for one of the foreign wire news 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 ten 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.

Pandemonium broke out. 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 riot police 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 peace. We sprinted into the Odeon cinema parking area. 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 a 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 passer-by 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 MARA Building area, hundreds of people were trapped in a tunnel walkway 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 Shopping 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 another policeman, in plainclothes. 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 Road ... they’re going to Chow Kit to ....". Before he could finish, we heard that loud whoosh again. Another water cannon truck raced up Jalan TAR towards us and the crowd ran helter skelter again. A wave of people surged away from the red beast, scattering 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 restaurant and was frantically waving at me to join her. I remembered the accounts I’d heard about FRU men storming into the MacDonald’s at the Dayabumi building 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.

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

We walked towards Ampang Road. These people will spray poor, working and middle class ordinary Malaysians but would surely not want to cause anxiety among the rich and famous of Ampang. We stopped at the corner of the Bank Industri building where I left my significant other in a desperate search for footwear she could use. A young woman walking in bare feet along the road 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 a thousand-dollar Italian-made Gucci at the time.

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

It was already 6.30 p.m. by then. We had to leave for Petaling Jaya to be at a Public Forum on abolishing the Internal Security Act. But we were under no illusion that the situation was back to normal. As our taxi passed by Campbell Road, 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 of what else would unfold over the next few hours.

Later that evening, reports indicated that over 30 truckloads of police arrived in Kampong 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 were arrested. Hospital staff said at least 12 demonstrators were brought in for treatment of serious injuries following the clashes. Police claim one officer suffered minor injuries.

At no point during the day 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 Allahuakbar" , followed by the occasional clapping. There were 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. They were let loose to sow terror, pure and simple. 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.