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Monday, November 12, 2007

Malaysia may charge protesters

Taipei Times (12/11/2007): Malaysian police detained 245 people after firing tear gas and water canon to disperse thousands of people demanding electoral reforms in the biggest political street protest in nearly a decade, police said yesterday.

The detainees were released after providing statements but could later be charged and face up to a year in jail if convicted for taking part in the illegal assembly, a police spokesman said.

"We are still investigating but they have all been freed on bail," said the spokesman, who declined to be named citing policy.

Thousands of people defied a government ban against the rally on Saturday in downtown Kuala Lumpur but were scattered as police fired tear gas and water canon near the Merdeka (Independence) Square where they had gathered.

The crowd, many wearing yellow T-shirts, later regrouped and marched to the royal palace in a procession more than 300m long, shouting "Save Malaysia" and "Long Live the People."

Yellow is the color of Malaysian royalty.

Protesters presented a memorandum to a representative of the king, urging him to intervene to ensure the election system is revamped ahead of general elections widely expected for early next year.

"This is our right. Our rulers are so proud of our democracy but in fact our democracy is worse than Burma, worse than Bangladesh," said Rosli, a 40-year-old government worker. "We just want to correct what is wrong. We just ask for fair elections."

National police chief Musa Hassan was quoted as saying by the Sunday Star newspaper that authorities exercised restraint but were forced to fire tear gas and water cannon after protesters refused to disperse.

He put the crowd size at about 4,000 people, but rally organizers estimated at least 30,000.

It was the biggest political demonstration in Malaysia since supporters of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim took to the streets for several days in September 1998 to protest his dismissal from the Cabinet and ruling party by then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Anwar subsequently formed the People's Justice Party, one of three opposition parties involved in Saturday's demonstration.

"It is a good signal that Malaysians want freedom and democracy, and they want free and fair elections," he said.

Anwar has called for further street protests until reforms are implemented. But Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak warned the government wouldn't tolerate illegal assembly.

The rally was organized by some 70 non-governmental organizations and opposition parties, which demanded the removal of phantom voters from electoral rolls, a crackdown on government workers using absentee ballots, access to state-controlled media by all political parties, and an end to vote-buying and other kinds of irregularities.


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