Last updated: July 9, 2011 10:05 pm
Thousands protest against Malaysia government
Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannon at thousands of demonstrators to prevent them from assembling to rally for electoral reform on Saturday. Some 1,600 people were arrested for defying the government ban in a street protest against Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government.
Organizers of the rally called Bersih say they are “horrified” with the detentions.
The coalition of campaign activists issued a statement saying: “The only violence witnessed was perpetrated by the police, who unleashed immense amounts of tear gas and chemical laced water on innocent members of the public.”
Bersih insisted they would rally peacefully. Some demonstrators sat in front of a police blockade outside of the Tung Shin Hospital. But the authorities eventually fired water into the crowd, scattering the protesters. Some took refuge in a church compound but a group of officers marched in and headed for people wearing yellow t-shirts, the uniform of the rally.
“I don’t know why they are arresting me,” said Muhammad Ismadi bin Haji Abdul Kadir, who works for the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic party, as he was being taken away.
The officer refused to comment to the Financial Times. But the police had warned the public that they would detain anyone who was participating or promoting the rally.
Activists and opposition parties say it is their right to march against the electoral system, which they say is plagued with fraud.
Mr Razak has dismissed the allegation. He has accused opposition parties of backing this rally to gain political momentum ahead of the next poll.
The opposition won an unprecedented number of seats in the last general election following restrictions imposed by the police during a similar demonstration in 2007.
This demonstration began as a call for free and fair elections.
But some analysts see this as a referendum on Mr Najib, who has built an image as a leader of reform.
This is the first public challenge directed at the prime minister, according to Ibrahim Suffian with the independent polling group Merdeka Center. The fact that this rally was organized by activists and not political parties makes it more attractive to ordinary Malaysians.
Calling for a more transparent electoral system drew Allan Leong, 45, to brave the rain and participate in his first demonstration.
“Malaysia is controlled by one party. It’s not fair. It doesn’t really reflect a true democracy,” he said.
Demonstrators managed to avoid clashing with pro-government groups, who were also out in the hundreds.
But the whole event left Kuala Lumpur paralyzed. The city was placed under a 22-hour lockdown on Saturday. Access to all major roads was cut off and some public transport was suspended.
The city was eerily quiet, except for the sound of helicopters circling. In the shopping district of Bukit Bintang some shops opened their doors, only to close up a few hours later.
Ms Hao at the Swiss Polo shop, which sells luggage and trinkets to tourists, says she underestimated how much the road blocks would affect her business.
“Malaysia is a very peaceful country to live in. I didn’t think it would get this complicated,” she said.
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