Postcards from the Edge

Demonstration at Putrajaya

Sometime in October last year

Noon. Putrajaya

Position: Volunteer for KOMAS

Job Task: Document the demonstration against the Goods and Service Tax and the handover of a memorandum

“No GST! No GST!” the line of 15 people chanted, holding their placards firmly in front of them. The placards, in blue and red markers, read “Goods and service tax?!?!”, “GST makes the poor pay morel”, “We don’t want GST!” Some reporters were clicking away on their long SLR lenses. Fifty feet away, three policemen stood beside two police cars observing the crowd.

The community representatives from the estate arrived this morning, some in vans, some in their own taxis, some from Kajang, and some from as far as Ipoh. It took them a while to find the Minister’s Building in the vast, deserted Putrajaya. The afternoon sun beat down on the demonstrators, yet they stood and waited.

Like the policemen, I too was observing the crowd, but with my digital video camera. Unlike them, however, I was with the people. I was there on a volunteer assignment for Komas, a local community communication centre that supports and train grass root communities and NGOs on the utilisation of popular communication tools.

Today was my first time documenting a demonstration for them; part of Komas work is to provide video and photographic documentation supports for communities. As a video student, holding the camera was pretty easy; seeing a demonstration away from the safety of the TV screen was not. The demonstrators consisted mainly of mothers and grandfathers and young workers from the estate; very friendly people, especially when they know you are on their side. It was the people that stood 50 feet away that I was more concerned with. Recalling clips from CNN news of police throwing punches, waving batons and shoving shields at demonstrators made me cringe. As I threw glances to keep tab that the policemen are still where they are and not any closer, I wondered what is it that made us stand on different sides.

This event was organised by human rights organisation SUARAM, which was represented today by Arul Chelvan, who is wearing a simple t-shirt that sits a little too snugly on his teddy bear frame. Someone from the Minister’s department eventually came out an hour later. Arul strode over with a smile to meet the man in suit, tie and a serious face.

Steadying my video camera, I shot the memorandum – it carried many NGOs’ and communities’ endorsements on it. I followed, or rather, my video camera followed the two men. The man from the Minister’s office finally agreed to set up a meeting between five representatives from the community and his superior, who sits up there in the office of the tall building. My video camera again followed the smaller convoy through the glass panel entrance and towards the elevator, until a man in a suit told me that no press was allowed from here onwards. The elevator door closed in my face, and my camera’s.

Medical treatment in Aceh

Sometime between Jan 27 – Feb 3 this year

Loukshomawe, Aceh

Position: Komas Project Officer

Job task: Coordinate a mobile unit of medical personnel to areas wrecked by the tsunami and document the work

It was a bumpy ride all the way, from Medan to Loukshomawe town, from town now to the inner villages and camps. Windows in the van that weren’t blocked by medicine boxes or bags were wide open. This district had seen no rain since last week’s momentary flooding of the roads. The wind gushing in was welcomed, but it also brought in the heat and the humidity.

The doctors’ singing lightened the air somewhat; during the long journey, we had sumptuous servings of ABBA, Hindi songs and songs from musicals. The guide and driver joined in for the occasional Chris Dayanti and Sheila Majid.

We reached a camp. It was in the compound of a mosque. Before the crew of seven could stretch their tired bodies properly, the folks had already surrounded the van with its KSKBA logos stuck all over.

KSKBA (Koalisi Solidaritas Kemanusiaan Bencana Alam Aceh Sumatra Utara), or The Coalition of Humanitarian Solidarity Of Natural Disaster In Aceh And North Sumatra, is a coalition of more than 30 Indonesian NGOs, with Komas being the only member from Malaysia. Formed immediately after the December 26 disaster, it aimed to provide urgent relief such as food, medicine, volunteers and communication. It is not in Komas’s capacity to provide disaster relief, but as many of the NGOs under KSKBA have been closely involved with Kamas for more than 10 years (Komas also organises trainings for South East Asia communities under the coalition of SEAPCP, a South East Asia popular communication program), this was an exception. Komas decided to give our best attempt at relief work to help friends in need.

This is the third team from the KOMAS-KSKBA relief efforts (all in all, Komas have sent seven medical teams to Aceh and have treated more than 7,000 patients); the guide and driver knew exactly what to do.

Together with some people from the community, the guide and driver got hold of two tables and some chairs. A few local youth volunteers for KSKBA got those who wanted medical treatment in a queue and helped recorded basic information like name and age. Under the mosque that stands on stilts, our team of one paramedic and one nurse efficiently piled up the medicines in the most convenient arrangement possible on stools, chairs and the ground.

My digital video camera was rolling: doctors seeing patients; volunteers assisting in translations; nurse dishing out medicines; the driver taking a much awaited drag on his cigarette.

Before the guide could light up in suit, I grabbed him and we went looking for the camp’s person in charge. My camera continued rolling as the guide jotted down the latest information about this camp: number of survivors, women, men, children; where were they from; what were the major problems; food; medicine; hygiene; shelter. He would have to report back to KSKBA after this trip.

Only two hours in our first camp and already the medicine was dwindling. We stopped seeing patients, not because there were no more patients but because there would be more camps further inside that might have received less aid.

I officially joined Komas as a staff on the 8th of December last year. I like films and videos, and I want to serve communities, so Komas sounded like a 2-in-1 shampoo. The media has already been overused for the propaganda of corruption and greed, so I thought: if only more people used these communication tools to propagate the cause of communities and human rights instead…

Easier thought, I soon found out. Organising a video conception workshop in April that was in conjunction with this year’s Freedom Film Fest (FFF), I got the chance to share these principles with college youths and young working adults, showing them how to use video for more than just entertainment. When Jerald Joseph, one of the board of directors for Komas and also a well respected human rights trainer, stuck articles about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the white board, he was returned with blank looks. On the closing date of the competition, none of the workshop participants had submitted any works. Was it because they didn’t understand? Was the theme too tough? Did I do something wrong? Was there not enough time? Or was it simply that they just don’t care? I fear the fast possibility most.

Another time, my colleagues and I went to Bidor to help an indigenous community set up a video station. I observed as Prakash, the production coordinator of Komas, taught Abri, the video guy for the community, how to edit the video that Abri had shot of the loggings that were happening in his very own village. Abri took down notes and nodded. Two weeks later, I called Abri to inquire about his progress. He said he had tried to follow Prakash’s steps but still couldn’t get it to work the same way.

I have learnt from Komas that ideals are a wonderful beginning, but it is time, patience and persistence that would see the ideals through. Many times, it is also realising that one must be practical. We cannot do enough.

As we were packing up the medicines at the mosque at Aceh, a group of children gathered around us. They were shy, but they approached easily; they teased, they asked for more medicines, they joked, they laughed. Then, they began to sing children’s songs, in Acehnese and Indonesian. The singing was welcomed with smiles from the team and the gathering community. For a good 15 minutes, heat and doom were far from our minds.

Then we toughened our hearts, we had to leave. The children eyes were wide and pleading as they asked, “Will you come back? Nice people from Malaysia, come back and visit us?”

We couldn’t answer. We smiled bravely, waved good bye and set off for the next camp.

Fighting for land in Rawang

May 22

Rawang squatter area

Late morning

Position: Komas staff, friend of Permas (an NGO consisting of representatives from urban poor communities and community organisers)

Job tasks: Learning about community involvements and community organising through documenting the work of Permas in Rawang

James Aru was red in the face. Sweat trickled down his balding forehead. His voice, husky with age, was loud as he shouted in Tamil. I turned and ask an activist, Cecil and also James’ daughter for translation. After censoring James a little, they told me he was basically saying: “Fools! After so many years of waiting and fighting for your land, you are just going to let it go so easily because of some sweet words from the MP!”

The people that packed the small nursery suddenly went silent. The dilapidated nursery couldn’t fit all the 30 over people that came; mothers in sari and fathers in sarongs all lined up around the small entrance and hung around outside. Most of the faces looked tired and haggard, from their hard labour, lack of health care and proper meals. Some heads were bowed, embarrassed to meet his gaze. Some heads were raised higher, shouting back, “What can we do? We are sick of waiting and living in this place! We want our own home, our land!”

James Aru responded calmly, “Then fight until you get your land. If you give in now, it will take years for you to get to where you are again. It is your land, it is your right.”

The whole nursery bellowed in agreement. Fourteen years ago, the Sungai Buloh railway squatters were asked to leave the railway area because of new development plans. The government promised them land as compensation but first needed six months to clear that area. In the meantime they were made to stay in longhouses in Rawang. Fourteen years later, they are still there. Finally, they have been given their land titles. When the people of Rawang went to check out the land, however, they were shocked to find that some contractors are building on their land without their permission. After going from one government office to another, they were offered another deal: we build low cost house for you and you give us half of your land. This offer had lead to torn decisions among the community; some wanted to take the offer up and leave this place for good, while others, more cynical now about the ever changing deals, wanted to keep the full land. The community has decided to take the relevant parties to court. The meeting today was to find where the community stood. To the relief of Cecil, James Aru finally sat down and let Arumugam, a younger Community Organiser, explain to the people what the court is doing and how the lawyer can assist them in getting their rightful land.

One by one the people came up to sign the letter vouching that the land is theirs. I and a volunteer took snapshots of those who signed, to hold them to their fight. In my camera viewfinder, I saw James Aru smile at each of them.


Endnotes: What happens to the documentation?

  1. The video on the GST handover of memorandum is now kept in Komas archive of video documentations. The videos and photos in the archive will be asked from time to time by NGOs or communities to be used in court or advocacy. Komas has also been approached by production houses and TV stations for video clips of events that they do not usually cover.
  2. The video taken from the Aceh trips have been made in to a short video to help orientate the later medical teams that Komas sent. It has also been presented as a report of the Aceh situation and Komas’s efforts to Malaysian NGOs that were also involved in the Aceh relief work. As the relief work was based only main donations, the video is also available for inquirers wanting to see where the funds go.
  3. Some of the footage on the Rawang squatters condition were used by Komas interns. They had produced a documentary of the history and progress of the Rawang squatters’ struggle. This documentary will be screened on the 4th day of FFF 2005. The video and photos of the Rawang community is in the safekeeping of Permas – they will decide whether it is needed in court.

First Published: 30.06.2005 on Kakiseni

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