Tens of thousands of protesters massed outside Istana Negara this afternoon, facing off against riot police in defiance of a government ban on the rally calling for clean and fair elections.
The demonstrators, an alliance of opposition parties and civil society groups, had marched in the driving rain to the palace, chanting “Election Reform” and “Justice”.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had vowed to suppress the demonstration, backing police who said they feared riots could break out.
But the rally went ahead despite efforts to close down the centre of Kuala Lumpur, with a heavy police presence and roadblocks that caused traffic snarls.
“There are close to 30,000 protesters here at the moment. We have agreed to have them sit down in front of the palace and have four representatives present a petition” to the palace representative, a senior police officer told AFP.
Bersih: 40,000 at palace gate
Organisers of the rally said that at least 40,000 had turned up for the rally.
Some 400 police in riot gear were deployed at the palace, including dozens armed with automatic weapons and several with tear gas launchers. Two water cannons were set up behind police lines.
“The Malaysian public must be allowed to express their opinions and views,” parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said at the palace gates before going in to deliver the petition.
“It is not fair for the government not to issue a permit for this rally to take place as it is only the voice of the people being expressed here,” he said.
Organisers had planned to hold the rally at the city’s Dataran Merdeka but were forced to shift the venue after police sealed it off.
Anwar made short speech
Anwar Ibrahim, who was heir apparent to former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad until 1998 when he was sacked and jailed for sodomy and corruption, was only allowed to make brief remarks at the rally.
He yelled out his slogan of “Reformasi” or “Reform” and thanked the crowd for coming.
“We want free and fair elections and clearly Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his cabinet are complicit to the crime of cheating Malaysians from having free and fair elections,” he told reporters later.
Anwar’s sodomy conviction has been overturned but the corruption verdict stands, barring him from standing for public office until April 2008.
Protests are rare in Malaysia, and the last major rallies were seen in 1998 during the “Reformasi” movement that erupted after Anwar’s sacking.
Kuala Lumpur (dpa) – Malaysian police on Saturday fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators who gathered in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur to rally for fair elections in the country’s largest anti-government protest in almost 10 years.
Despite the pouring rain and heavy police presence, more than 10,000 people gathered early Saturday at several different locations in the city centre and marched their way to the royal palace to hand in a memorandum appealing for royal intervention in the coming elections, which is not due until 2009 but is widely expected to be held before the end of the year.
Shouting “Long Live the king” and “Save Malaysia,” the protestors, who donned yellow as a sign of support for royalty, waited outside the palace gates until the king’s secretary received the memorandum from president of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia, Abdul Hadi Awang.
Just minutes earlier and several kilometres away, police fired tear gas and water cannons at several thousand people gathered at the Jamek Mosque in the city centre after they ignored warnings to disperse.
Police say the gathering and march were illegal, as the organizers failed to get a permit which is required in Malaysia for any public gathering involving more than five people.
However, rights groups have slammed the police and the government for not issuing the permit, saying that the people’s freedom of expression was being stifled.
The reasons given by the police were that the massive protests would inconvenience motorists and that the demonstrations were a hazard to public safety.
“We will be no different from Myanmar and Pakistan,” said Lim Guan Eng, the Secretary-General of the opposition Democratic Action Party. “It is paranoia to the stage of hysteria,” he said, referring to the massive police presence, including riot officers and helicopters.
The purpose of Saturday’s demonstrations is to call for the removal of “phantom voters” or bogus names from electoral rolls, a crackdown on government workers using absentee ballots, and access to state-controlled media for all political parties.
“We are here to make our voice heard, that we want fair and free elections for this land,” said Joshua Chin, a lawyer and member of the country’s Bar Council.
“Our calls for a fair election have in the past fallen on deaf ears, and so now, we seek the king himself to ensure that the Election Commission does its job right,” said Chin, who was one of hundreds of lawyers who joined in the march.
“We hope that as the king looks out of the palace and sees this sea of yellow, he will realize we are crying out to him to bring justice to a system gone wrong.”
Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi urged organizers to call off the protests, saying that “democracy through street demonstrations” could not be accepted.
Saturday’s public gathering is the largest the country has seen in almost 10 years.
In September 1998, more than 10,000 people took to the streets after then deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim was sacked and subsequently jailed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, on charges of corruption and sexual misconduct.
Anwar subsequently formed a political party, which was one of the 70 organizers of Saturday’s demonstrations.
Activists say Malaysian elections are generally tilted in favour of the ruling National Front coalition, due to the redrawing of constituencies to weed out known opposition supporters. There are also frequent allegations of vote-buying, election commission bias and the use of public funds and the media by the ruling parties.
The National Front has been in power since Malaysia’s independence in 1952 from the British.
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Police in the Malaysian capital used water cannon and fired tear gas on Saturday to disperse protesters in one of the nation’s biggest anti-government rallies in nearly a decade.
Police arrested at least a dozen people as tens of thousands of protesters, led by opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, marched in heavy rains to the King’s palace to demand changes to the country’s electoral system.
Hundreds of policemen, including riot police with shields and batons, guarded Kuala Lumpur’s landmark Merdeka (Freedom) Square, the main mosque and the National Palace to foil the rally.
Police sprayed water cannon twice to disperse a crowd of about 500 protesters chanting slogans outside a historic domed mosque guarded by about 50 riot police, as helicopters hovered overhead.
Nearby, more than 2,000 protesters, chiefly teenagers wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Bersih,” or “Clean” in Malay, marched in heavy rain towards the city’s colonial-era railway station.
They chanted “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) and “Reformasi,” a reform demand that was the war chant of 1998 opposition protests, while waving banners reading “Save Malaysia” and “Election Commission, stop your tricks.”
Groups of demonstrators later converged on the palace of Malaysia’s king, where opposition leaders handed over a list of election reform demands.
The opposition said it would organize bigger rallies if its demands were not met.
Police minister Johari Baharum said the crowd numbered less than 10,000, but organizers put the figure at more than 30,000.
“I’m happy that the police managed to control the crowd. But they shouldn’t do it again,” Johari told Reuters. “We will come down hard on them.”
Anwar said he was happy with the turnout despite the government’s condemnation of the protest.
“I think this is a major success in the expression of public sentiment against fraudulent practices in the elections,” Anwar told Reuters in a telephone interview.
“We will have to persist in this campaign to send a message to the government that people are tired of this kind of fraud.”
Anwar was speaking after he and several opposition colleagues, including Hadi Awang of the hardline Islamist Parti Islam-se Malaysia and Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party, submitted their list to a representative of the ruler.
“The People’s Right”
Mohamadiah Sohod, 33, a government worker from southern Johor state, said he was upset because police had refused to issue a permit for the rally. “This is the people’s right, to assemble and air their grievances,” he added.
Police effectively shut down the city centre, throwing up barricades on main roads to halt cars and turn away protesters, although crowds dispersed peacefully after the protest ended.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said on Friday the government would not tolerate street demonstrations. “They are challenging the patience of the people who want the country to be peaceful and stable,” he said.
Previous protests of similar scale were anti-government rallies led by Anwar in 1998 before his arrest and jailing.
The rally was organized by Bersih , a loose coalition of 26 opposition parties and non-government groups that is pushing for reforms to an electoral process it says favors the ruling coalition.
Abdullah won a record victory in a 2004 election, and is widely expected to call snap polls in early 2008.
Two people were seriously injured in September when police opened fire to disperse rioters at a Bersih rally in the northeastern state of Terengganu.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Jahabar Sadiq; Writing by Clarence Fernandez)