Why Bersih 3.0 went belly up


Qiu Yaofeng, The Malaysian Insider 

Recriminations from both sides were quick to fly even before the police had finished clearing out the streets of Kuala Lumpur in a haze of tear gas and chemical-laced water.

Each blamed the other for starting the melee, which saw almost 400 arrests and sporadic running battles with the authorities that left dozens injured.

Bersih supporters claimed protesters only breached the barricades after the police fired on them with tear gas, while the boys in blue alleged that they let fly with canister after canister of tear gas when demonstrators overran their line.

To be frank, I’m not really interested in who started the fire (with apologies to Billy Joel). I’m only keen on figuring out what went wrong.

I’m very inclined to believe claims that the police used excessive force, based on the photos and videos that have surfaced. There is a culture of violence, evident from past police actions, which clearly hasn’t been eliminated from the force.

But the protesters also have to shoulder some of the blame. No, it’s not because I think they deserved to be roughed up for exercising their constitutional right to assembly or for attempting to enter Dataran Merdeka.

It’s because they failed in abject terms to ensure the state apparatus arrayed against them had absolutely no excuse to act in the way they did, and thereby tainting the objective of the rally.

Speculation that agents provocateurs would incite mob attacks against police personnel was rife even before the rally began. So, too, were concerns that the opposition would hijack the protest for its own ends. Which begs the question: Why weren’t participants of Bersih 3.0 better prepared?

Some will assume at this point that I’m using the rapist’s defence — she asked for it. That’s not it. In an ideal situation, it wouldn’t be necessary for protesters to take such precautions but we clearly don’t live in a perfect world.

After all, was anyone truly surprised by the disproportionate response by the cops once they let fly?

You wouldn’t walk down a dark alley at night for fear of getting mugged. While it remains the job of the powers that be to keep the streets safe, we should not confuse the ideal for reality. Unless and until the situation on the ground gets better, precautions must be taken.

Similarly, Bersih protesters shouldn’t have let individual sparks of violence build into a wildfire that overshadowed their cause, which has been relegated to the fringes of public consciousness now due to Saturday’s mayhem.

Those who marched under a banner of peace should have taken more care to ensure the rally didn’t get out of hand the way it did. For every man who acted out of turn, there should have been 10, 30, 50 others to restrain him.

To be honest, protesters seemed more interested in taking Instagram pictures of themselves at the rally to prove they were there. Yet, it’s not enough just to show up. The job’s only begun then and you can’t abdicate responsibility to the mob as soon as you put on a yellow T-shirt.

It would be all too easy to point fingers at Bersih 3.0’s organisers and say they were ill-prepared for the huge turnout. But what chance does a small coalition like that have of controlling many tens of thousands of people who come from various groups with disparate causes?

It really comes down to each individual who was on the ground last weekend to do that. They should’ve taken charge of the cause they were marching for and kept all possible distractions to a bare minimum. Belief is not enough without action.

To be fair, there were many who tried to stop the situation from escalating, and it’s to their credit that things didn’t get even more out of hand. Unfortunately, these good people were too far and few between.

Malaysians have a right to march when they feel aggrieved but they also have a duty to their cause to ensure the point gets across without undue interference. Because if the message gets lost, why bother?