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Monday, November 12, 2007

Malaysian police fire tear gas, water cannon on protesters demanding electoral reforms

IHT (10/11/2007): Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of activists Saturday at an opposition-backed rally demanding electoral reforms in the biggest anti-government street protest in nearly 10 years.

Police estimated the crowds to be between 10,000 and 30,000.

The demonstrators were stopped by a police cordon near the Masjid Jamek mosque in central Kuala Lumpur as they tried to march to Merdeka (Independence) Square, where the rally was scheduled.

Shouting "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, the protesters were sent running when police fired tear gas and a water canon. An Associated Press reporter saw many people run into the mosque to take shelter. When they re-emerged the water cannon was let loose again.

Rally organizers said police arrested 20 people, though police officials did not immediately say if they had arrested anyone. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

"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."

"Look at our police, how brutal they are. The government only thinks of its cronies," said Rosli, who declined to give his full name, fearing retribution.

The government had declared the rally illegal and blocked all roads leading to Merdeka Square. International human rights groups have slammed Malaysia, saying the government has failed to act democratically.

A few thousand other activists prevented from reaching Merdeka Square faced off against police in a heavy downpour at another intersection.

Shouting "Save Malaysia" and "Long Live the People," the demonstrators — dressed in yellow shirts — formed a procession more than 300 meters (yards) long on the road.

Yellow is the color of royalty, and protesters hoped to appeal to the constitutional monarch to support them. Several groups of demonstrators — stopped at different access points to Merdeka Square — marched to the royal palace where they presented a memorandum to a representative of the king.

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-leader Mahathir Mohamad.

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

"It is a good signal that Malaysians want freedom and democracy, and they want free and fair elections," Anwar told reporters outside the palace.

He called Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi a hypocrite for denying Malaysians the right to peaceful assembly and condoning electoral fraud.

The rally was organized by some 70 non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties to call for electoral reforms ahead of general elections widely expected for early next year.

They 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 irregularities.

The Election Commission agreed to another demand that voters daub a finger with indelible ink to prevent them casting more than one vote. (AP)


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