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Agenda: Gassed Again (Jalan Kebun)
By Kapal Berita

7/11/2000 10:33 pm Tue

Source: Agenda :

From AgendaMalaysia

6th November 2000

Gassed Again

By Sonia Randhawa

It seemed a hurriedly organised event, emails and flyers coming into circulation only days before it was scheduled to occur, with no confirmation of the venue. The Opposition parties and supportive NGOs were attempting to convene 100,000 people at the 'Markas Keadilan', Shah Alam, on Sunday 5 November, to reiterate the people's right to peaceful assembly.

The authorities were not amused. Special Branch officers visited the offices of some known dissidents. Six people were detained on Saturday night and roadblocks were set up on highways throughout Selangor to deter out-of-town visitors. Despite this, thousands flocked to the site at Jalan Kebun. Police roadblocks prevented most from reaching the venue, so gatherings were held in the traffic jams leading up to the roadblocks.

Participants showed imagination in their demonstrations of loyalty to the Reformasi movement. Aside from the usual flags, headbands and banners, there were some decidedly odd pieces of jewellery. One woman, for example, held her tudung on with a paste-diamond 'R' (for Reformasi) brooch.

The scattering of the participants, who were at venues ranging from the 'Markas Keadilan' and the Pas headquarters in Gombak to toll booths near the original venue, meant that it was difficult for anyone to estimate the numbers gathered, but there were around 10,000 near the Kesas Highway toll booth leading from Kota Kemuning.

The situation was also a logistical nightmare for the authorities. Having reached the blocked-off toll booths, protestors could move neither forward nor back. Even if they wanted to disperse, it rapidly became impossible. Intimidating bright-red Federal Reserve Unit trucks were positioned in front of at least 5km of tailback; cars five-deep along the road. The heavy machinery was directed at a very small number of people, lessening its impact, psychologically and physically. (Some people spent the whole afternoon in the queue, never realising that the trucks had positioned themselves up ahead.)

At 3pm, the FRU trucks fired tear gas into the crowd before them, and officers advanced into the crowd, but they were unwilling to proceed far without protection from the trucks behind. After more than half-an-hour, two rounds of tear gas and the arrest of four people, the crowd was still growing in size. At one stage, the FRU officers were advancing and tear gas was wafting over the crowds. One lone Pas supporter was oblivious. Having made his ablutions before the ruckus began, he continued praying amid the chaos.

"Ini suara rakyat, kuasa rakyat," said one demonstrator. ("This is the voice of the people, the power of the people.")

Leaders of all the Opposition parties made speeches, ending at around 5.30pm. The speeches rehashed old themes, calling for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad to stand down and bolstering the 'power of the people'. But then the police may have achieved what the party leaders had been attempting since Anwar's sentencing: a revival of the peoples' fervour.

While negotiators were sent forward to discuss how the crowd could disperse, the police let rounds of tear-gas off directly into the crowd, rendering people unconscious and smashing a car windscreen. Reports of demonstrators being attacked with rotan canes were circulating, and many were falsely convinced that a helicopter, which had been circling menacingly throughout the afternoon, was joining the fray.

"How can they behave like this?" cried one woman, eyes streaming behind her sunglasses. "We were ready to disperse. People were talking to them."

"They are like dogs," said one young man who had been advocating a peaceful approach to the situation all afternoon, trying to prevent people from disturbing the police or giving them cause to attack. "They were dragging people from their cars, smashing in headlights." He shook his head in disgust.

Stories circulated that the police had even fired tear-gas into vans holding those arrested. People were angry once more. Some 116 were arrested.

Not all managed to hear the speeches of the leaders; only a couple of thousand were near the front of the queue. But it wasn't what the leaders said that was of importance, it was the revived feeling of camaraderie and purpose, which had been largely lost. Following the protracted debate by Parti Keadilan Nasional on how to reinvent itself following the Anwar sentencing, the police reaction to Sunday's events may have been fortuitous.