S. Arutchelvan, secretary general of the Socialist Party of Malaysia, is a veteran of many demonstrations. But the Bersih 3.0 mobilisation, which he estimates was between 100,000 and 150,000-strong, was the biggest he's been a part of in the country. “It was a huge success” he told Green Left Weekly, “and it terrified the Barisan Nasional [BN] government.
“The BN government sees Merdeka Square as its Tahrir Square. They do not want to see – and for the public and the world to see – images of it being occupied by democratic movement. It is their political survival.
“Since 2011 PM Najib [Razak] has been worrying about the Arab Spring spreading to Malaysia. He said his government would not let it happen.
“So on April 28, the riot police was used to prevent the people from getting to Merdeka Square at any cost.
“Four hundred and seventy-one people were arrested, including media and Suhakam [human rights] observers. One hundred and seventeen people were hospitalised (including two policemen). Thousands more would have been injured and sought treatment outside the hospital system.
“This government is weakening, so just the symbolism of hundreds of thousands of protesters having a peaceful sit-down demonstration in Merdeka Square would have been a powerful political blow.”
Since the Bersih 3.0 mobilisation, the government has tried to blame the violence on the rally organisers and opposition parties. Rumours have been going around that provocateurs planted by the police or government may have been placed in the crowd to give the riot police an excuse to fire tear gas and water cannons.
Arutchelvan says there is some evidence of “funny business” going on during the protest.
“Some people who were arrested said that they were arrested by police wearing yellow Bersih T-shirts. There were definitely police provocateurs in the crowd. I received some funny SMSs from people asking me where is the RM300 supposedly promised for them to join the rally. These were SMS's from people who blocked their names or called from untraceable phone numbers.”
But he does not think that the crowd breaking through the barb wire barricades placed by police on the roads approaching Merdeka Square was all the work of police provocateurs.
“For the last two weeks, people who have been involved in street demos were talking everywhere about liberating Merdeka Square. There was very strong chanting from the crowd to open the barricade, especially from the youth.
“Before April 28, the courts made an order banning people from Merdeka Square until after May 1. Bersih leader Ambiga [Sreenevasan] said we won't break the court order. Some people thought that the roads around Merdeka Square itself were not part of the order so that we could occupy those but not the field.
“However, on the day when we arrived we saw that even to occupy that portion, you needed to break the police barricade. So there was a lot of frustration and confusion.
“When Ambiga called on the people to disperse, maybe only around 500 people heard her. Then as her car was leaving in the direction of Merdeka Square, the crowd kept shouting 'buka, buka'-- 'open, open'.
“The government, and even some people in Bersih, are blaming opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for inciting the crowd to break the barricade, but Anwar was telling the crowd to move away from the barricades when the barricade was brought down. I was just there right in front of him.
“However you look at it, the police and the government must take full responsibility for whatever damage that happened. The PSM is totally convinced that if the ruling government had allowed the people the freedom to gather at Merdeka Square, then the assembly would have been peaceful and there would not have been untoward incidents.
“All the speeches would have been presented with a good sound system and the organisers would have been able to disperse the crowd after the assembly in an orderly manner.”
Arutchelvan added that there would not even have been any rubbish around after the sit-in, had the authorities allowed it to go ahead, as the organisers would have told the public to collect the garbage “as happened in Kuantan during the anti-Lynas [an Australian corporation building a toxic rare earths refinery against people's wishes] assembly recently”.
“The breach of the barricades in Merdeka Square by a small group of the people cannot be used as an excuse for police terror on a peaceful rally... Until the police attack, the assembly was very organised, peaceful, colourful and very festive.
“There has been lots of speculation about who broke the barricade. It is my opinion that there is nothing really wrong in people breaking those barricades, for the simple fact that the people wanted Merdeka Square liberated and to stand true to its name 'Independence Square'.
“This was the popular chant of the people... It was a popular demand, not an isolated one. The police used discretion in allowing the people to rally from six points, though initially they said that they will not allow this. In the same manner, the police could have used their discretion in allowing the people to gather at Merdeka Square.
“Even though Merdeka Square was not liberated on April 28, there will be continuous efforts to liberate this public space in the future. Let us not forget the heroic task taken by the students and the Occupy Dataran in the last two weeks in occupying the square leading to Bersih 3.0.
“The people will continue to oppose draconian laws. Previously huge demonstrations have been held against the Internal Security Act and many other draconian laws. Fighting against draconian laws is a democratic right of the people. In this case, the court order was obtained at the 11th hour and is ex-parte [legal decision made by a judge without requiring all of the parties to the issue to be present]. It is the will of the people that matters in a democratic movement, not the will of a court order obtained in an undemocratic fashion and enforced by police force.”
Video: Australia solidarity with Bersih 3.0 - Green Left.