Malaysia fires tear gas at protest, arrests 514

July 9, 2011 - 2:00 AM
Malaysia Protest

Malaysian police officers detain a man near Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday, July 9, 2011. Malaysian police said they have detained at least 236 people trying to assemble at a stadium for a banned rally seeking electoral reforms. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Police fired tear gas and detained hundreds of activists as more than 10,000 demonstrators massed across Malaysia's largest city demanding electoral reforms in the country's biggest political rally in years.

The opposition-backed rally was the culmination of weeks of intense pressure on Prime Minister Najib Razak's long-ruling coalition to make election laws fairer and more transparent ahead of national polls widely expected by mid-2012.

Demonstrators marched in defiance of Najib's administration, which has declared the rally illegal and warned people repeatedly to avoid it.

Opposition leaders accuse Najib's National Front of relying on fraud to preserve its 54-year grip on power, which has been eroded in recent years amid mounting complaints about corruption and racial discrimination. The government insists the current electoral policies are even-handed.

Authorities took extraordinary security measures to deter Saturday's rally by sealing off roads, closing train stations and deploying trucks mounted with water cannons near the Independence Stadium in downtown Kuala Lumpur, where activists sought to gather.

The federal police force said in a statement that it had detained 514 people in a clampdown called "Operation Erase Bersih," referring to the "Bersih" coalition of civic groups organizing the rally. Many were held at public areas where they had gathered to begin their walk to the stadium.

Thousands of others were trying to reach the stadium from various parts of Kuala Lumpur, chanting "Long live the people" and carrying yellow balloons and flowers as they marched. Most activists said the total number of demonstrators exceeded 10,000 people, making it Malaysia's biggest street rally since 2007.

The Bersih coalition said tear gas was fired at at least one crowd of several hundred, but no injuries were immediately reported. Tense standoffs were reported at other locations where riot police armed with batons tried to prevent people from advancing.

The rally has galvanized the opposition and has been credited for a surge in political awareness among the public in recent weeks.

Government officials accuse opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's three-party alliance of endorsing the rally to cause chaos on the streets and undermine the National Front.

"The public is reminded not to be involved in any demonstration," the federal police force said in a statement. "Stern action will be taken against those who disobey."

Numerous restaurants and stores were closed Saturday because of the transportation disruptions and fears of violence.

Over the past two weeks, more than 200 other activists have been arrested nationwide for trying to promote the rally. Six are being held under security laws that allow indefinite detention without trial. Most of the others were eventually released, but some were charged with laws banning activities linked to illegal assemblies. They face several years in prison if convicted.

The activists' demands include an overhaul of voter registration lists, tougher measures to curb fraud and fairer opportunities for opposition politicians to campaign in government-linked media. The National Front's mandate expires in mid-2013 but many analysts expect elections to be called by next year.

Supporters of the Bersih coalition were also planning solidarity marches over the weekend in foreign cities, including in Australia, Britain, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and the United States.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that the U.S. has been communicating to Malaysia the importance of respecting human rights, including freedom of expression and assembly.

"We consider it incumbent on all sides to refrain from violence, particularly if we're going to have another rally tomorrow," she told a news conference Friday.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.