16 April: Luka Kita. Today was the third day of the Occupy Dataran protest camp at Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square), Kuala Lumpur. The camp started on Saturday (April 14) after students and youth marched through the streets of Kuala Lumpur protesting for the abolishment of PTPTN (the Malaysian version of student loans) and the establishment of free tertiary education.
Occupy Dataran started last July as the KL manifestation of the Take The Square Movement, inspired by occupations of public space in Spain and Tel Aviv. The first Occupy Dataran was held on July 30, last year, and the first official KL People’s Assembly was held the following week on August 6. As many occupiers in KL, including myself, love to point out to everyone we can, the first Occupy Dataran was held 7 weeks before Occupy Wall Street began (but unfortunately the Malaysian media still refers to Occupy Dataran as a local offshoot of Occupy Wall St, merely expressing solidarity with the Occupy Wall St movement). Since then, Occupy Dataran has been a weekly assembly at Dataran Merdeka (or various other public spaces depending on how the police are feeling on the night) as a platform for experimentation with participatory democracy based on the popular assembly model. Apart from the assembly, the weekly gathering often involves a Really Really Free Market (Pasar Percuma), Speakers’ Corner, People’s University (Universiti Rakyat), workshops, music and other activities.
As I’m writing here from my bedroom in Sydney, I can’t write about the events from my own observations and involvement as I normally would. So, instead I’ll try to piece together a good view of what’s going on in KL from the fragments I can glean from Twitter, Facebook, news sites and conversations with friends who are involved.
The protest camp was set up at about 4pm on Saturday afternoon after a rally organised by student groups such as Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia, Malaysia Bangkit and KAMI made its way to Dataran Merdeka. Upon reaching Dataran Merdeka, the student leaders erected tents and stated their intention to camp out until the Prime Minister had responded to their demands. Regular attendees of Occupy Dataran’s KL People’s Assembly joined the student groups and the assembly model of decision making was introduced. Since then, at least a couple of hundred students and youth have been involved (according to estimates given by my friends who are there) in the camp and the nightly assemblies. Apart from the nightly assemblies where the major decision making takes place, the protesters have also held workshops, classes, lectures, set up a Pasar Percuma, started work on piecing together a campsite library, as well as played games, and sung and played music together (which according to one report, involves an awesome rendition of Zee Avi’s Kantoi). This evening, a Universiti Dataran Merdeka session was organised, with Fahmi Reza, a designer/filmmaker/historian/lecturer (and lots of other things), leading a class in “The Democratic System of Malaysia” and another class has been scheduled for tomorrow to be lead by Dr Azmi Sharom, a law lecturer at University of Malaya.
Of course, the camp has not been without its hassles from the local authorities. Over the past three days, numerous tents have been destroyed and confiscated by the police and scuffles with the police have broken out. At about half past eleven this morning, authorities surrounded the tents and detained a student protestor before releasing him not long after. Besides the constant hassles from police and directives to leave, the protestors have remained.
Besides the opposition from police and Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), the protestors have been shown a lot of support. In the media, they have received support from Andrew Khoo, the Bar Council human rights committee chairman.. Materially, the protestors have been donated tents, food, money and other supplies from supportive individuals and groups. My head almost exploded out of confusion upon reading a tweet that the protestors had been given food donations from Pemuda UMNO and Puteri UMNO (the youth and young women’s wings of UMNO, the ruling political party for the last 55 years). The opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, have also been giving support to students at the camp, as have numerous NGOs. In the People’s Assembly held on Sunday night, the protestors decided they would accept donations and support from all sources but affirmed their commitment to non-partisanship.
To follow the events of Occupy Dataran in the words of the protestors, follow them on Twitter: (@Occupy Dataran).