Malaysian police fire tear gas, water cannon on protesters demanding electoral reforms
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of activists Saturday at an opposition-backed rally demanding electoral reforms in the biggest anti-government street protest in nearly 10 years.
The demonstrators were stopped by a police cordon near the Masjid Jamek mosque in central Kuala Lumpur as they tried to march to Merdeka (Independence) Square, where they planned to hold their rally.
Shouting "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, the protesters confronted police who then fired tear gas and sprayed water from a fire truck stationed nearby. An Associated Press reporter saw many people run into the mosque to take shelter. When they re-emerged the water cannon let loose again
"This is our right. Our rulers are so proud of our democracy but in fact our democracy is worse than Burma, worse than Bangladesh," said Rosli, a 40-year-old government worker. "We just want to correct what is wrong. We just ask for fair elections."
"Look at our police, how brutal they are. The government only thinks of its cronies," said Rosli, who declined to give his full name, fearing retribution.
The government had declared the rally illegal, blocked all roads leading to Merdeka Square, and told activists they would be arrested. International human rights groups have slammed Malaysia, saying the government has failed to act democratically.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned Friday he expected violence during the demonstration, which organizers said would attract 10,000 to 40,000 people.
A few thousand other activists prevented from reaching Merdeka Square faced off against police in a heavy downpour at another intersection.
Shouting "Save Malaysia" and "Long Live the People," the demonstrators — dressed in yellow shirts — formed a procession more than 300 meters (yards) long on the road.
Yellow is the color of royalty, and protesters hoped to appeal to the constitutional monarch to support them.
It was the biggest political demonstration in Malaysia since supporters of former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim took to the streets for several days in September 1998 to protest his dismissal from the Cabinet and ruling party by then-leader Mahathir Mohamad.
Anwar subsequently formed a political party, which is one of those supporting Saturday's demonstration.
The rally was organized by some 70 non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties to call for electoral reforms ahead of general elections widely expected for early next year.
They demanded the removal of phantom voters from electoral rolls, a crackdown on government workers using absentee ballots, access to state-controlled media by all political parties, and an end to vote-buying and other irregularities.
The Election Commission agreed to another demand that voters daub a finger with indelible ink to prevent them casting more than one vote.
Malaysian law bans public gatherings of more than five people without a permit. Police refused to issue a permit for the rally, saying it may jeopardize national security and inconvenience motorists.
"It is paranoia to the stage of hysteria," said Tian Chua, a senior official of the opposition People's Justice Party.