April 29, 2012
Police Clash With Malaysian Protesters Seeking Electoral Reforms
By Liz Gooch
Published: April 28, 2012
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The Police fired tear gas and water cannons on Saturday at thousands of protesters here calling for free and fair elections, in one of the largest rallies in Malaysia in recent years.
Nearly 400 people were arrested during the demonstration in central Kuala Lumpur organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, a group of 84 organizations that is demanding an overhaul of the country’s election system before a national vote that is widely expected to be held in June.
The group, known as BERSIH — or clean, in Malay — argues that the electoral system unfairly favors the governing coalition, which has led Malaysia since independence in 1957.
The Police estimated that 40,000 to 50,000 people had gathered for the protest. BERSIH organizers put the number at 250,000.
Swarms of protesters, many wearing the canary yellow T-shirts that have come to symbolize the BERSIH movement, began gathering on Saturday morning at various roads leading to Independence Square (Dataran Merdeka) in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, creating a festive atmosphere.
A group of protesters chanted, “Long live the People” and sang the Malaysian national anthem under a sweltering tropical sun, their voices competing with the sound of a Police Helicopter flying overhead while police officers looked on from behind a row of barbed wire and barricades.
The demonstrators were kept out of Independence Square, the site of many parades and celebrations, by a court order issued Friday. A rally in the streets around the square appeared to have been peaceful until BERSIH organizers, who had pledged that they would not break through the barricades, instructed protesters to disperse.
A small group then appeared to breach the barriers, prompting the Police to fire tear gas and water laced with stinging chemicals at parts of the crowd, The Associated Press reported. A police spokesman, Ramli Yoosuf, said the tear gas was fired after protesters breached the barriers. “They cut the barricade, and they were barging in,” he said.
Andrew Khoo, a lawyer and a member of the BERSIH steering committee, said the organizers were “extremely disappointed” that people ignored their requests to disperse and instead broke through the barriers. But, he said, the Police had overreacted. Their response was “wholly disproportionate to any risk they may have felt they were under,” he said.
“The Police went in and broke up people who were sitting on the road, who were very peaceful,” Mr. Khoo said. “The water cannon truck came charging at them so they had to run for their lives. This was followed by tear gas. It was a pincers movement, and people were getting trapped in between.”
Another BERSIH supporter, Anand Lourdes, said people started screaming when the Police fired the tear gas.
Saturday’s protest was BERSIH’s third call for changes to the country’s election system. At the group’s previous protest, in July, more than 1,600 people were arrested, and tear gas and water cannons were also used to disperse protesters.
“Despite all the talk of ‘reform’ over the past year, we’re seeing a repeat of repressive actions by a government that does not hesitate to use force when it feels its prerogatives are challenged,” Mr. Robertson said.
The Minister of Home Affairs, Hishammuddin Hussein, in a statement released Saturday, commended the police for “their professionalism and the restraint they have shown under difficult circumstances.”
Mr. Hishammuddin said it was regrettable that BERSIH had declined to use an alternative site for its rally because Independence Square was not approved for public protests under the new Peaceful Assembly Act.
BERSIH has said that the offer to use a stadium in the city came too late, and that the other sites offered were far from the center of the capital.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has introduced many reforms in recent months, after promising last year to improve civil liberties in Malaysia. However, critics say that the legislative changes do not go far enough to ensure that democratic rights are protected.
Activists decided to rally again on Saturday because BERSIH’s leadership contends that recommendations for changes to the election system made by a parliamentary committee, established after last year’s protest, are unlikely to ensure that the next election will be conducted fairly.
The Election Commission said that it would carry out some of the parliamentary committee’s recommendations, like extending the campaign period to a minimum of 10 days and using indelible ink to stain voters’ fingers to ensure that people do not vote more than once.
Mr. Hishammuddin said the Election Commission had “gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the next elections are free and fair and meet the highest international standards.”
But BERSIH is demanding that senior officials of the Election Commission resign, that the voting rolls be purged of fraudulent names and that the election be monitored by international observers.
One protester who gave her name as Wan Zabidah, 60, said she had traveled two hours by bus to attend the rally and express her concerns about the integrity of the voting rolls and the independence of the Election Commission. “We are already old, but it’s for the children and the grandchildren,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in print on April 29, 2012, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Police Clash With Malaysia Protesters Seeking Electoral Reforms.