Malaysia Police Fire Tear Gas and Arrest Hundreds of Protesters
KUALA LUMPUR — Police arrested hundreds of people and fired tear gas on protesters in Malaysia’s capital on Saturday in an apparent attempt to prevent an afternoon rally by election reform advocates.
Officials said they had arrested 672 people for “various offenses” by late morning as they closed off roads leading into the capital and some streets in the city in advance of the rally planned at Merdeka Stadium.
Demonstrators were seen scattering as police fired tear gas throughout Saturday afternoon. In a late afternoon skirmish, police volleyed tear gas on thousands on protesters near the city’s central market.
Saturday’s confrontation between police and protesters culminated after weeks of growing tension as activists have called on Prime Minister Najib Razak to make election laws more transparent. National elections are expected to be held by the middle of 2012.
Saturday’s rally was organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, also known as Bersih, or “clean” in Malay. The coalition is made up of 62 nongovernmental organizations.
Speaking at a news conference on Saturday, Ambiga Sreenevasan, chairwoman of Bersih, said the arrests and firing of tear gas by police had stirred a sense of outrage among Malaysians.
Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and democracy with regular national elections, but Bersih organizers say that elections are vulnerable to manipulation.
They have issued a list of eight demands, including marking voters with indelible ink to prevent them from voting more than once, purging electoral rolls of “phantom voters” and ensuring that opposition parties have equal access to the mainstream news media. The group is also calling for a royal commission to investigate how elections are conducted.
Last Saturday, the government declared Bersih illegal, because it had not registered as an organization and was causing unrest among the public. Bersih countered that it was not a new organization, but rather an alliance of existing groups.
Mr. Razak said the coalition could hold the rally if it agreed to meet in a stadium, rather than on the streets as first planned. Bersih organizers agreed to the terms, but the authorities said that Bersih cannot proceed without a police permit, which normally would not be granted to a group that has been declared illegal.
Bersih leaders responded by accusing the prime minister of having “reneged” on his offer to provide a stadium for their rally. Bersih leaders said they would go ahead with Saturday’s protest, despite not receiving permits from police.
In recent weeks, 225 people have been arrested in connection with the Bersih movement under various laws including the Sedition Act and Emergency Ordinance, which allows for detention without trial. On Thursday, the police said six people remained in custody. Human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have condemned the recent arrests, and called on the government to stop harassing those associated with Bersih.
“The Malaysian government’s crackdown on an electoral reform group shows utter disregard both for free expression and for the democratic process,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
A street rally calling for similar changes in 2007, in which the police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters, was credited with helping the opposition make historic gains in the 2008 elections. The next election must be held by mid-2013, but there is speculation it could be held as early as this year.