Tear gas used as 25,000 rally for Malaysia reforms

 

Kuala Lumpur

Police unleashed tear gas and chemical-laced water today at thousands
of demonstrators who staged one of Malaysia's largest street rallies in
years, demanding fair rules for national elections expected soon.

Malaysian police said in a statement that 222 people were arrested. Lawyers said most were expected to be released soon after having their details recorded, but it was not immediately clear if they would be charged later with any offense.

Officials said three demonstrators and 20 police were injured.

At least 25,000 demonstrators swamped Malaysia's largest city, hoping to pressure Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition — which has held power for nearly 55 years — to overhaul electoral policies before polls that could be held as early as June.

Authorities insist the elections will be free and fair, rejecting activists' claims that the Election Commission is biased and that voter registration lists are tainted with fraudulent names.

Demonstrators wearing yellow T-shirts, waving banners and chanting slogans poured into downtown Kuala Lumpur, massing near a public square that police had sealed off with barbed wire and barricades.

"I'm here because I'm a Malaysian and I love my country," said information technology manager Burrd Lim. "There's no election that's perfect, but I want one that's fair enough."

Authorities had refused to allow an opposition-backed pressure group that organized the rally to use Independence Square, a nationally renowned venue that hosts parades and patriotic celebrations.

The demonstration remained peaceful for several hours, prompting organizers to declare it a success and ask people to head home. But when a small group appeared to suddenly breach the police barriers, authorities began firing tear gas and water laced with stinging chemicals at the crowd.

Baton-wielding police backed by trucks mounted with water cannon sporadically fired tear gas at some demonstrators for at least an hour before much of the crowd was dispersed. People fled into streets and stores nearby, leaving shoes, bottles and other belongings scattered on the ground.

Police said one protester snatched a pistol from its personnel during the chaos, though the weapon was later recovered, and others destroyed public property.

Video footage by independent news website Malaysiakini showed angry demonstrators overturning a police car that allegedly hit two people.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said 20 policemen and three demonstrators received treatment for unspecified injuries. He insisted that police acted "with utmost restraint," but opposition leaders and rights groups said the use of tear gas was unjustified.

"By launching a crackdown on peaceful protesters on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian government is once again showing its contempt for its people's basic rights and freedoms," said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Asia.

Federal police spokesman Rasdi Ramli estimated there were about 25,000 demonstrators, but many witnesses and some Malaysian news organizations said there were far more. Malaysiakini said there were 100,000, while The Sun newspaper estimated 80,000.

"We all want change today," said Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the demonstration's leaders.

The rally's organizers have also sought longer election campaigning periods and changes to ensure citizens living abroad can cast ballots, as well as international observers for the polls and fairer access for all political parties to the government-linked media.

But despite the large turnout for Saturday's demonstration, there was no indication that Prime Minister Najib's National Front coalition would agree to major changes to satisfy the activists.

"If (elections) are not clean, not fair, show the evidence," Najib was quoted as saying by the national news agency, Bernama, on Saturday. "We do not want to be elected through cheating. We are a government chosen by the people. The majority of the people chose us because they know (we) are better" than the opposition.

After about 20,000 demonstrators staged a similar rally that was also dispersed by tear gas last July, authorities established a panel to study electoral regulations and agreed for voters to have their fingers stained with indelible ink while casting ballots to curb multiple voting.

But activists say those decisions fall short of what's needed. Hundreds of Malaysians living abroad and rights activists in cities such as Hong Kong, Auckland and Perth also staged demonstrations Saturday in solidarity with those in Kuala Lumpur.

Speculation has intensified that Najib might dissolve Parliament next month and seek a new mandate in June, even though polls do not need to be held until mid-2013.

The National Front, which has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, suffered its worst performance in 2008 elections, when it lost more than a third of Parliament's seats amid public complaints about corruption and racial discrimination.

AP

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee