The Storm and The Rainbow

A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain

Rising from the ashes January 30th, 1999

I will never forget the last time I had been at the forecourt of the Sogo Department store on Jalan TAR. It was three months ago, on Saturday, October 24th, 1998. By the end of that day, I had seen people being beaten, battered, showered with acid, pursued by baton-waving policemen from one end of Jalan TAR to the other.

The massive demonstrations that rocked Jalan TAR and the nation ended that day, with violence, with anger, with fear. In the following weeks, pompous government Ministers gloated that the government had solved its political problems and quelled dissent. They declared the Reformasi movement was dead.

If I may paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous quotation, rumours of the death of Reformasi had been greatly exaggerated. I returned to Jalan TAR today (for my Chinese New Year shopping!) and, much to my delight, found it alive and kicking.

The Internet had been abuzz with announcements of a demonstration at Jalan TAR for many weeks before. Someone even suggested that we all brought along Id Festival cookies and shared it among ourselves and the police! But no one was really sure if anyone would turn up. The memories of the brutal beatings of October 24th were still fresh in our minds. 

For many, these memories still triggered that sharp twinge of pain, that cold shudder of fear. But when I arrived at that historic intersection of Jalan Dang Wangi and Jalan TAR today, there was no fear. At least five hundred people were gathered there and initially it was calm. People wore white ribbons, Reformasi badges and tags, even clutching copies of the Opposityion newspaper Harakah, as if they were paper flags signaling they were here for a purpose, they were here to be counted. Everyone was just standing around, watching, waiting for something to happen. All they needed was a signal.

The signal came from the road. From the hum of the traffic flowing along Jalan TAR came the distinctive four beats of the car horn. There was a shout of "Re - for - ma - si!" and the crowd erupted in loud unison. The people began converging to the pavement, clapping their hands and waving at motorists giving the four-honk salute. 

As if on cue, banners began unfurling. The one that caught my eye said "Mahathir is not relevant - Anwar Ibrahim is still relevant", alluding to Judge Augustine’s Paul’s almost obsessive use of the words "not relevant" to the slightest thing uttered by Anwar’s defence team.

The joyous scenes of last October were again re-enacted and the alleyways and sideroads of Jalan TAR again echoed with shouts of "Reformasi!" and "Undur Mahathir!" ("Mahathir resign!") For many there, it had been the first time their voices had carried those old battle-cries in many months.

Behind the throng of people on the pavement, individuals were doing a brisk business selling copies of Harakah and Reformasi ‘merchandise’ - everything from Anwar wall calendars to button badges. I bought a particularly interesting one that had a small picture of Datin Seri Wan Azizah and two of her children - Nurul Izzah and Nurul Nuha - as well as a Lim Guan Eng ‘Justice For All’ badge. Who said Reformasi was just about Anwar?

These were going to be welcome additions to my little collection of badges at home. Thirty years from now, I will be showing my grandchildren these badges and I’ll be telling them about all I saw and all I heard when I got them, in those heady days when history was being made in our country. Thirty years from then, they will probably be in museums throughout the country, recounting our country’s struggle for truth, justice and democracy. So they were well worth the few ringgit I spent today!

Uniformed policemen began moving into the scene and by 5:30 pm they had sealed off traffic from Jalan TAR and diverted it to Campbell Road. The road was now deserted, except for a few groups of uniformed police officers and the gaggle of journalists and press photographers hovering around them. A few people were busy moving up and down the road, making sure demonstrators kept off the road and stayed on the pavement. 

Another group were in heated negotiations with senior policemen on the scene. Word went around that the police were allowing the demonstrators half an hour to gather. There was a loud cheer and clapping from the crowd, and the shouts slowly picked up pace and tempo.

But as the deadline approached, the crowd grew larger and louder - the cellular phone network had obviously spread the word that the Jalan TAR shopping spree was on and there were many bargains on offer! The police approached the crowds on the pavement and ordered them to disperse. The crowd would retreat but as soon as they went to disperse another section of the demonstration, the crowd would return again. The senior officer on the scene looked annoyed in the extreme. "We’ve already told you nicely to disperse - what else would you like us to say?!" he muttered at the crowd as he paced up and down the pavement, waving his baton in the air as if in despair. "Disperse! Don’t make us use force!"

At 6:00 pm sharp, he showed he meant business. A convoy of red police trucks, buses and land rovers arrived from the opposite end of Jalan TAR, with the now-familiar water cannon at the head of the column. The crowd did not budge. Five minutes later, there was a loud "ting! ting! ting! ting!" as the warning bell was sounded from the water cannon and about 60 FRU riot police in full battle gear trooped out of their buses and formed four lines in column. The crowd ran in all directions as soon as they saw the red helmets file out of the buses but, after a few minutes, they re-grouped at the steps of the Sogo Department Store - waiting expectantly for the incoming charge.

The crowd now became strangely quiet, the only sound heard being the barking of orders from the FRU commanding officer and the stamping of boots as the FRU personnel took positions and snapped to attention. 

The uniformed policemen again approached the crowds, practically pleading them to disperse. It was obvious that, today, they had no desire to inflict injuries - perhaps part of new Home Minister’s recently-announced "mesra" (friendly) policy for the police. Perhaps the resignation of former Chief of Police Rahim Noor had something to do with it. Perhaps October 24th was just a horrible mistake by them. Whatever it was, the police were showing uncharacteristic restraint.

But they were losing their patience. Officers shouted at the crowd and pushed them into department store. There were literally hundreds of people squeezed inside by its large glass doors. "But I don’t want to go buy a dress!" I heard a woman say as her worried husband pulled her into the department store, followed by policemen shouting expletives at them.

Another woman was loudly complaining to another policemen."You leave the tourists alone," she said, pointing to a European tourist standing in the middle of the now-deserted pavement, cooly licking a Haagen-Daas ice cream. "But the you chase the Malaysians away like beggars!"

A friend of mine was approached by three plainclothes policemen. "Tolong, jalanlah! Kita tak mau buat apa-apa pada kau orang - tapi kitapun kena cari makan!" ("Please disperse! We don’t want to do anything to you - but we have to earn a living!") We overheard a small group of people nearby being asked to move along. "Kalau kumpul sikit-sikit itu tak apalah ... tapi sikit-sikit, lama-lama jadi bukit!" ("A few of you can gather ... but a few can soon become a mountain!")

My friend and I walked away from the approaching policemen and walked down Jalan TAR towards the water cannon and FRU lines. As we walked behind them, I could see another police officer standing by the side of a truck brandishing a mean-looking automatic rifle. From the way he was looking at us, smiling from ear-to-ear, I knew it was fully loaded. Recalling the Home Minister’s new ‘friendly’ image for the police, this was certainly not what I had in mind by the word "mesra"!

We entered a coffee shop nearby, where we could still see what was happening. For the next few minutes, all seemed calm as we sipped our Cokes. We suddenly heard the loud wailing of a siren from afar - and the wailing became louder and louder as the minutes passed. "What now?" I thought, thinking that perhaps police reinforcements were arriving for the coming assault.

Much to my surprise, it was a fire engine and it stopped right in front of our coffee shop! Dozens of firemen streamed past us into the kitchen, with customers and policemen looking on curiously. The coffee shop owner then came out of the kitchen muttering something about a gas leak and a small fire. "Oh great," I said to my friend. "Here I was worried about being beaten to death by FRU, and we might just die in a simple kitchen fire!"

We left the coffee shop and proceed back down Jalan TAR. The police convoy and FRU were still barring the road, but the road in front of them was already clear of demonstrators. About a couple of hundred metres behind them, though, just before the Coliseum cinema, quite a large crowd had gathered on the pavement. "They’re only curious on-lookers - not Reformists" I said to my friend. "Yes - but they’re going to be the first ones to be bashed up when the FRU attack!" he retorted. "The Reformists are experienced - they know when to run!"

By 7:00 pm, the situation seemed to have returned to normal. The FRU troops filed back into their trucks and the convoy moved into a side road and left the area. Traffic was allowed to move in about five minutes later. 

The demonstration proper had lasted just slightly over half an hour.

That same morning, an even larger crowd had gathered at the courthouse to greet Anwar Ibrahim after the judge had ruled that Anwar had to make his defence against the charges levelled against him. They had shouted even louder than ever before, in defiance of the Appeal Court’s remarks that Anwar had been denied bail because his crowd of supporters were "making too much noise" outside the courts.

Crowds had, in fact, been gathering regularly outside the courts for many weeks before. But today, for the first time in months, the crowds returned again to the streets of Jalan TAR. A few hours later that evening, they were at Kampung Baru. Internet reports later said they were even joined by senior police officers for evening prayers, as police ringed the Kampung Baru mosque compound. The demonstrators then dispersed peaceably.

There were those who had thought that the Reformasi movement had been beaten to submission and consumed in a fire of violent repression. 

But today it rose again from its ashes and, like the mythical Phoenix, it is stronger and more beautiful than it ever was. And it will be the fires of repression that tried to destroy it that will, instead, be extinguished and expunged, as this Phoenix spreads its wings and soars towards it noble mission of Renewal.