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ATimes: Long road for Malaysian unity
By Anil Netto

24/1/2001 9:21 pm Wed

[Pihak penganjur seharusnya mengambil iktibar dari perhimpunan kali ini. Masalah kesesakkan akan membuatkan ramai pihak kecewa. Kemudahan pengangkutan awam seharusnya diambil kira - jika tidak kereta yang bertali-arus itu sendiri sahaja sudah cukup untuk menggagalkan perhimpunan tanpa polis perlu berbuat apa-apa apabila jam sudah menunjukkan angka 2:30 petang.

Memang jalan itu masih panjang jika tidak kita sudah sampai ke penghujung jalan. Pilihlah jalan yang lebih mudah kerana masih ada banyak jalan yang luas terbentang. Dan bangunan pejabat sudah lama menyediakan tempat untuk kereta tiba lebih awal dan selamat menghilang.... Gunakan sedikit ketajaman. - Editor ]

Source: From Asia Times

23rd January 2001

Long road for Malaysian unity

By Anil Netto

A massive traffic jam compounded by a police cordon frustrated thousands of Malaysians trying to reach a "reformasi" protest in an obscure village about seven kilometers off the Kesas highway, a major artery west of Kuala Lumpur, on Saturday.

Those who reached the site early were irked when police prevented a planned Malay cultural performance and a Chinese lion dance. However, an Indian drum team did manage a short performance for the reformasi unity event, dubbed the "100,000 People Festive Gathering".

Rights activists at the scene said chants of reformasi sparked a couple of standoffs with police armed with water cannons.

The event was launched at 2:30 pm, but the more than seven kilometer single-lane crawl to the village meant that many people only reached the site after 5 pm - just as the rain began to belt down and the organizers were wrapping up the event.

As a result, only about 5,000 to 10,000 people actually reached the site before it closed - a number well short of the tens of thousands who jammed the Kesas highway on November 5 while trying to reach another cordoned-off site.

The reformasi gathering was planned to mark the various festivals of Malaysia's diverse ethnic and religious groups: Christmas, the end of Ramadan, Ponggal (an Indian harvest festival), and the Chinese Lunar New Year. It was aimed at strengthening integration within the reformasi movement.

Police had granted a permit for the event, but laid stringent conditions, including a ban on political speeches.

Nevertheless, opposition leaders from Keadilan (the National Justice Party), the Democratic Action Party, and PRM (the Malaysian People's Party) peppered their speeches with references to injustice, oppression and charges of abuse of power. PAS (the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party) was represented by its vice president.

Police made their presence felt around Kampong Medan, the site of the gathering, soon after noon. About three kilometers from the venue they started diverting traffic heading for the event into a maze of roads off the main road. A couple of PAS supporters, however, stood at a crossroads inside the maze waving the diverted traffic in the right direction.

In a sign of how jittery the authorities were, some 700 police personnel set up base in a field and were deployed along the roads close to the venue in Kampong Medan, which lies in an area called Teluk Panglima Garang (Fierce Warrior Bay). Trucks equipped with water cannons, smaller strike vehicles and a helicopter were parked in the field, while four other police trucks with dozens of police stood by immediately outside the entrance to the site of the gathering.

"It looks like they are expecting Rambo to attack here," observed a Malay reformasi supporter. He had travelled more than 150 kilometers from a village in Malacca to reach Kampong Medan. "Why is this show of force necessary? We are only interested in a peaceful gathering."

His friend, Azman, a contract worker from the same village in Malacca, railed against the authorities for the bailout of former Malaysia Airlines stakeholder Tajudin Ramli. "They bought the shares back from him at 8 ringgit (per share) when the market price was just over 3.60 ringgit," grumbled Azman. "Mereka ingat orang kampong bodoh ke" (Do they think the kampong folk are stupid?)

This is the sort of sentiment from the grass roots that has left Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's once invincible United Malays National Organization looking vulnerable.

Ethnic Malays once again dominated the event, although several Chinese and Indian Malaysians mingled among the crowd.

Despite the restrictions imposed on the gathering, the police appeared to act with more restraint, unlike on November 5 when they used force to crack down on demonstrators on the Kesas highway. An ongoing inquiry by the Malaysian human rights commission, Suhakam, into allegations of brutality, is proving embarrassing to the government.

Rights activists monitoring Saturday's event were disappointed when no observers from Suhakam could be seen. Days before the event, a Suhakam commissioner had said it was reconsidering its earlier decision to stay away from the event following protests and appeals from rights groups.

Midway through the speeches on Saturday, police stopped the speech-giving "because they touched on politics", an English daily reported on Sunday.

Selangor police chief Nik Ismail Nik Yusoff said police had to intervene to stop the speech-giving to prevent the gathering from turning into an illegal assembly.

"It looks like we have the freedom of assembly today but not the freedom of expression", is how a rights activist summed it up.

Gatherings such as Saturday's, though seemingly not achieving much, have kept the reformasi flame burning and sustained pressure on Mahathir. "Maybe I regret going into politics. I should have stayed a doctor," Mahathir, 75, said in an Asiaweek interview (January 26 edition). "When I was practising, I was very popular. People loved me."

* On January 27, Keadilan opposition leaders are expected to lodge a police report on the alleged misappopriation of government funds and the Tajudin at the police station of Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

(Special to Asia Times Online)