Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Bersih 2.0: Yellow fever

Yellow fever — Shaun Tan
July 11, 2011

JULY 11 — “Forget it,” said my father. “You’ll never get anywhere near the city centre. The government’s got it completely locked down. Besides, the police will arrest anyone who even approaches the barricades — didn’t you read the papers? They’re going to be very brutal. They’re sending in the army.”

“I’d like to give it a shot anyway,” I replied.

He shrugged. “You’re wasting your time.”

The next morning he watched my sister, my uncle, my cousins, and I as we ineptly tried to plot a route into the city. Finally he gave an exasperated sigh. “You chaps have no hope of getting in. You don’t even know how the roads connect. You need someone who knows the road system and the different side-streets.”

I looked at him.

He was quiet for a moment.

Then he told us to get in the car.

He got behind the wheel and suddenly he was driving us through the streets of Kuala Lumpur, weaving through side streets and smooth-talking his way past police barricades.

When we arrived at the city centre he walked ahead like an excited child, boasting of his knowledge of the road system and laughing and joking along the way. I saw a side of him I hadn’t seen for a while.

The side of him who hates being told what not to do. The side of him that lets no authority trump his own reason. The side of him that throws caution to the winds and laughs as it blows past. He grinned mischievously and I thought, “Jeez, that’s where I get that spirit from.”

When we finally joined up with a Bersih procession I was heartened to see thousands of people of all races demonstrating peacefully. We protested together, we laughed together, and when the tear gas canisters started to rain down, we shared salt and water together. Like me, everyone else there had work to get back to, targets to meet, and obligations to fulfil, places to go and people to meet. But they came to the rally anyway because they knew it was important.

Despite the many instances of police brutality and their use of tear gas and water cannons on peaceful protestors, I also saw some policemen and women who were willing to meet my gaze not with hostility but with understanding, who were willing to shake hands with protestors, who spoke to me with friendliness and respect, and who acted with dignity and restraint.

These people were a credit to their office and represented the role of the police as it should be. The Bersih rally revealed a lot of ugliness in some, but it brought out the best in many others.

It’s been two days since the Bersih rally, since tens of thousands of us painted the town yellow, and since the BN-controlled press has worked to portray the peaceful protest as an unruly mob, and the lack of property damage as a victory for the government. But I’ll remember the 9th of July 2011 as the day thousands braved tear gas, police barricades, and the threats of arrest, violence, and genocide to preserve our freedom. The day we rejected the illegality of a peaceful rally for clean elections as being incompatible with a democracy.

To our government, I’d say that you know the true victors and losers of the 9th of July no matter what you pretend in the mainstream press. I’d say that despite everything, the people are still willing to work with you if you listen to us. But if you persist in your corruption and brutality, we will continue to embarrass you until we’ve driven you out of office.

And that if you decide to fight us you’ll be fighting your best people, for with us will stand those who are willing to struggle for the good of our country, and those to whom our common humanity matters more than your orders.

Here’s another tip: Take care when using the media. Many of us who turned out at Bersih did so because for years you’ve justified your rule in the language of rights and democracy. For years you’ve told us that Malaysia is a free and democratic country, and that the government is tolerant and moderate. And so on Saturday, thousands of Malaysians assembled to exercise their right to assemble and to speak out despite the ban, as they would in a tolerant democracy. For years you’ve used propaganda as a tool, forgetting that it cuts both ways. The problem with using propaganda though, is that, sometimes, people believe it.

It’s a funny world we live in.

* Shaun Tan is a Malaysian student. Contact him at shaunzhiming.tan@yale.edu


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