The Malaysian political wheel was splashed with shades of yellow and green last Saturday when an unprecedented turnout for Bersih 3.0 claimed downtown Kuala Lumpur, congesting street after street as groups of protesters from around the country converged on Merdeka Square. Upwards of 250,000 people are said to have attended. Despite an abrupt end to the rally, which occurred when tear gas and chemical-laced water cannons were fired upon wily protesters who broke a court order by stepping into the square, the opposition movement is viewed as having gained renewed clout in their call for electoral reforms.
PM Najib Abdul Tun Razak’s ruling party, Barisan Nasional (BN), which has technically been in power since independence in 1957, is accused of offering citizenship to immigrants who register to their party, on top of lending but a deaf ear to previous demands made during Bersih 2.0 last June (the second of the Bersih protests), which include the appointment of impartial observers to oversee polling stations and the use of indelible ink on ballots.
At first the atmosphere was festive: large inflatable yellow balls bounced about the crowd like a scene from a rock concert; protesters waved around gag signs and props in jest. The scene only turned sour when police reacted to protesters an hour before the rally was due to end at 4 pm (though it was widely expected to end with tear gas regardless). A police car was overturned and several were left injured. Local media has since been absorbed by an ensuing fracas of figure pointing over the premature crackdown.
Malays, Chinese and Indians from across the country were represented, but ethnic Chinese were the most visible. Some could argue that they have the most to gain by unseating the powerful Malay incumbents.
There was a smattering of police presence around the center of the protest. This group later ended up getting hit by tear gas from special forces.
Green-clad protestors decried the dangers of Lynas, an Australian rare earths refinery planned to open outside of Kuantan this June. Rare earth production creates low-level radioactive material that, in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster, has spooked Malaysians.
Ensconced away in the only restaurant I could find open, I watched protesters trip over each other to escape blasts of tear gas, leaving water bottles and sandals in their wake. In the above picture, a woman falls on the sidewalk in the middle of the chaos. I managed to suck up some gas myself, though thankfully not more than a little bit of irritation. Other protesters hiding out in the restaurant had red blotches around their eyes and face, as if they were suffered from a cold.
The heat of the Malaysian sun and mass of humanity made walking through this crowd unbearable.
The police pictured above were also hit by tear gas.
With the Orwellian gas masks and gear prepped, riot police stand ready to push back protestors. This picture was taken after tear gas was released at the other entrance to the square. Protestors I spoke with were already preparing by putting on surgical masks and placing their electronics in plastic bags.