I must admit that I did not expect the Bersih 4 rally to pass without incident. The signs of trouble were all there. The police declaring the rally as unlawful, even though they have no such powers under the Peaceful Assembly Act. The warnings issued to civil servants and students not to participate in the rally, on pain of disciplinary action. The ridiculous order issued by the Home Ministry, making any publication related to Bersih 4 into an “undesirable publication”, including yellow-coloured clothing bearing the words “Bersih 4”.
I also had security concerns about the rally itself. PAS' non-participation in the rally also meant that its Unit Amal volunteers, a constant security fixture in previous rally, would not be present. I was also worried about the overnight stay as there was nothing to stop troublemakers from disrupting the rally in the dead of night.
So it was not surprising that were many like me who thought that there would be trouble on Aug 29 and 30. Precedent from previous major rallies did not bode well for Bersih 4.
For example, the days leading up to Bersih 2.0 in 2011 saw arrests of activists and politicians, especially that of the six political activists from Parti Sosialis Malaysia under the Emergency Ordinance. Roadblocks and searches were also conducted then to look for Bersih supporters. I was part of Bar Council's Monitoring Team at the Bersih 2.0 rally in 2011. I witnessed before my eyes how the police arrested protesters.
In 2012, I was one of the many lawyers who stood outside of Pulapol after the Bersih 3.0 Duduk Bantah protest, demanding to be given access to those arrested in the Bersih 3.0 rally. Despite the guarantee of the right to legal representation in our laws, none of the lawyers were allowed to see the arrested persons that night.
The Bar Council has issued reports compiled through observations by its Monitoring Teams for both Bersih 2.0 and Bersih 3.0. The reports documented many instances of human rights violations at the rally, including improper use of teargas and water cannons, heavy0handed police action and the attacks on press personnel. Suhakam has also conducted two inquiries on the rallies, both of which are damning indictments of police action in those rallies.
But despite the odds, Bersih 4 proceeded without violence. Instead of stopping the rally, the police allowed it to proceed for the whole duration. The police even facilitated the rally by directing traffic and moving the Ambang Merdeka celebrations from Dataran Merdeka to Bukit Jalil Stadium. In turn, the protesters kept to their promise; they dispersed peacefully after the stroke of midnight.
Yes, after the rally a number of persons connected to Bersih 2.0 have been summoned for investigations. Yes, a number of young people were arrested the night before the rally from Rumah Api, a location in Ampang. Yes, the police are now searching high and low for protesters who allegedly stomped on a photo, although clearly no offence has been committed. These are unwarranted and regrettable actions by the police that should rightly be criticised.
But all these incidental events should not dilute the fact that a major rally took place in downtown Kuala Lumpur peacefully. Both the police and the protester played their parts to ensure the rally proceeded peacefully.
It also proves that peaceful assemblies can take place peacefully and without violence, despite the claims by doomsayers of the contrary. The brisk business by shops, hotels, makeshift stalls and food trucks in the area is also testament to the fact that these rallies, instead of disrupting local businesses, can actually be profitable to them.
The road to the recognition of peaceful assembly has been long and hard, filled with teargas, chemically-laced water, sweat and even blood. We did not get here because of the Government graciously granted it to us. The people had to fight for it. Even the immovable object of the State had to relent under the irresistible force of the rakyat.
Put aside whether one agrees with Bersih's cause. Those who claim to be democrats, from either side of the political divide, should celebrate this pivotal moment in our nation's democratic history. To me, this was the biggest takeaway from the rally.