Malaysian riot police have fired tear gas and used water cannon on a crowd of demonstrators demanding an overhaul in electoral policies in the centre of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
They massed near the city’s historic Merdeka (Independence) Square that police had sealed off with barbed wire and barricades.
Some of the demonstrators apparently breached the barriers and police began firing tear gas at them.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from Kuala Lumpur, said: “The protest organisers said that they would simply sit down at the barrier’s edge. But an hour after the main part of the protest, they broke through and this confrontation happened.”
The rally reflects concerns that Prime Minister Najib Razak‘s long-ruling coalition will have an unfair upper hand in elections that could be called as early as June.
Activists have alleged the Election Commission is biased and claimed that voter registration lists are tainted with fraudulent voters.
March to the barricades
“We will march to the barrier,” Ambiga Sreenivasan, Bersih’s chairwoman, said.
Our correspondent added: “As far as the protesters are concerned, the government haven’t met their demands. They want a series of improvements to the electoral system. They are calling for better electoral role. They also want the electoral commission, which runs elections this country, to be entirely reformed.
|Saturday’s demonstration was organised by an opposition-backed reform group, Bersih [AFP]|
“The protest was not what both sides [government and protesters] were talking about. They were talking about peaceful protests. Ideally, the protesters wanted to protest inside Independence Square.”
Saturday’s gathering follows one crushed by police last July, when 1,600 people were arrested.
That rally for clean elections prompted a police crackdown with tear gas and water cannon.
A resulting backlash prompted Najib, Malaysia’s prime minister, to set up a parliamentary panel whose eventual report suggested a range of changes to the electoral system.
But Bersih and the opposition are demanding a complete overhaul of a voter roll considered fraudulent and reform of an Election Commission they say is biased in favour of the governing coalition.
Najib has launched a campaign to repeal authoritarian laws in a bid to create what he called “the greatest democracy”.
His ruling coalition has governed Malaysia for more than five decades but made a dismal showing against the opposition in 2008, and Najib is under pressure to improve on that.