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Monday, November 12, 2007

Police turn water cannons on protesters

The Australian (10/11/2007): POLICE in the Malaysian capital have used water cannons to disperse crowds gathering for a banned opposition rally demanding changes to the electoral system, witnesses said.

Police had effectively shut down the city centre to try and foil the rally, with hundreds of policemen, including riot police equipped with shields and batons, standing guard at Kuala Lumpur's landmark Merdeka (Freedom) Square.

"Police sprayed water cannons twice to disperse a crowd of about 500 protesters chanting slogans," said a witness who watched the incident outside a mosque guarded by about 50 riot police, while helicopters hovered overhead.

The crowds were among the tens of thousands of people who had planned to gather in the capital's city square in one of Malaysia's biggest anti-government rallies since 1998.

At another mosque nearby, a second group of around 500 protesters, mostly teenagers in yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Bersih" or "Clean" in Malay, marched in heavy rain towards the city's colonial-era railway station.

The demonstrators chanted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) and carried banners reading "Save Malaysia" and "Abolish postal voting".

Police had mounted roadblocks along the main roads to the city centre and erected barricades nearby, checking on cars and turning away protesters, witnesses said.

"We will not hesitate to take action against those who defied our orders," state news agency Bernama quoted Kuala Lumpur police chief Zul Hasnan Najib as saying. The police had refused to grant a permit for the rally.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who oversees the police, said yesterday the government would not tolerate street demonstrations.

"They are challenging the patience of the people who want the country to be peaceful and stable. That is what they are challenging, not me," he told a meeting of his ruling party.

Opposition parties and rights groups have vowed to defy the police ban on the rally, which is expected to be led by opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim.

It could be one of Malaysia's biggest demonstrations since unprecedented anti-government protests in 1998 that led to Anwar's arrest and jailing.

The protest is being organised by Bersih, a loose coalition of 26 opposition parties and non-governmental organisations demanding reforms in the electoral process that they say heavily favours Abdullah's ruling coalition.

Abdullah, who won a record victory in a 2004 election, is widely expected to call snap polls in early 2008.

In September, police opened fire to disperse rioters at a Bersih rally in the northeastern state of Terengganu, seriously injuring two people.

Today's rally was due to culminate in a march to the nearby National Palace to present a written appeal to the King calling for electoral reform, Anwar's Keadilan party said.

"Our appeals to the government for reforms of the electoral system have fallen on deaf ears and as such it has abdicated its responsibility to safeguard the democratic institutions of the nation," Anwar told reporters on Thursday.


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