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Monday, November 12, 2007

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

Jakarta Post (10/11/2007): Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of activists at an opposition-backed rally demanding electoral reforms on Saturday.

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 they planned to hold their rally.

Shouting "Allahu Akbar," or God is great, the demonstrators confronted police who then fired tear gas and water sprayed from a fire truck stationed nearby. An Associated Press reporter saw many people run into the mosque to take shelter.

Several thousand other activists, prevented from reaching Merdeka Square, faced off against police in a heavy downpour at another intersection as opposition leaders refused to call off the rally.

The government had declared the rally illegal, blocked all roads leading to Merdeka Square, and told activists they should be prepared to be arrested. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned Friday he expected violence during the demonstration, which organizers said would attract 10,000 to 40,000 people.

"The rally has been banned. It is illegal. We have set up road blocks to screen vehicles entering the city to ensure that there is no trouble," a spokesman at the traffic police headquarters told The Associated Press.

He declined to be named citing protocol.

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 were demanding 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.

Malaysian law bans public gatherings of more than five people without a permit. Police refused to issue a permit for the rally, saying it may jeopardize national security and inconvenience motorists.

"It is paranoia to the stage of hysteria," said Tian Chua, a senior official of the opposition People's Justice Party, adding the rally will go on.

"This is not an anti-government protest. It is a citizens' gathering to call for clean and fair elections," he said.

Lim Guan Eng of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said Malaysia would become the laughing stock of the world. "We will be no different from Myanmar and Pakistan," where authorities have cracked down on protesters and arrested thousands, Lim said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the government for banning the rally.

"If Malaysia wants to count itself a democracy, it can begin by upholding constitutional guarantees of free speech and assembly," it said in a statement.


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