Malaysian Police Fire Tear Gas on Protesters
source from:- THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Police fired tear gas and chemical-laced water at thousands of protesters demonstrating for cleaner elections, potentially undermining Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts to present himself as a political reformer with elections months away.
Riot police took action on Saturday when some of the tens of thousands of demonstrators began encroaching on the historic Merdeka Square in the center of downtown Kuala Lumpur, despite police and government warnings to keep away from the area. Some groups of demonstrators lingered in the area for hours, and at least 388 demonstrators were detained, police said. Rally organizers criticized the police response as unnecessary and disproportionate.
Last year, police broke up a similar rally with tear gas and water cannon, and briefly detained about 1,600 members of the Bersih activist group, whose name means “clean” in Malay. That earned Mr. Najib’s government international condemnation and prompted him to move forward on a series of political overhauls, including ending the Southeast Asian nation’s Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite, warrantless detention.
Protest leaders earlier Saturday said they would march up to the heavily guarded perimeter of Merdeka, or Independence, Square, where Malaysia first hoisted its national flag after independence from Britain. There they held a sit-down protest in the surrounding streets, joined by opposition politicians including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Among other things, the yellow-clad Bersih supporters are demanding that the country’s electoral rolls be cleaned up to prevent fraudulent voting and that alleged biases within the country’s election agency be removed. In addition, they want international observers to monitor polls and also ensure that all political parties get similar access to government-controlled broadcasters and newspapers, which dominate the media in Malaysia. The protesters also want to enable Malaysians living overseas to be able to cast ballots. The next elections must be called by March 2013.
“Today is our day. No one can take it away from us,” Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the co-founders of the Bersih group, told a crowd before beginning a march toward Merdeka Square. “Today we speak with a clear voice: We want clean elections.”
Speaking to The Wall Street Journal earlier, Ms. Sreenevasan said, “today we have reclaimed our public spaces.
“The atmosphere is simply amazing,” she said. “The camaraderie amongst everyone is unmistakable.”
Malaysia, a major global exporter of computer parts, energy and palm oil, still is a conservative country where many voters and political power brokers are fearful of large street protests despite the rapid growth of the Internet and a proliferation of independent news websites, which often are critical of the government.
While a parliamentary committee is considering changes to Malaysia’s election laws and the government has agreed already with some of Bersih’s proposals, authorities appear unhappy that the protesters wished to assemble in the historic heart of the city. Speaking in Kuching, Mr. Najib said only the square is an unsuitable venue for political protests. He said national and city authorities had offered alternative venues, including a nearby stadium.
“We have built this country. We have made sacrifices to bring Malaysia to where it is today. We must defend the country while at the same time allow them their basic right to assemble,” Mr. Najib said, according to state news agency Bernama. He also denied that Malaysia’s electoral system was rigged against the opposition.
In a statement, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the government respects people’s right to protest and added that he “would like to commend police for their professionalism and the restraint they have shown under difficult circumstances.”
There was a palpable tension throughout much of Malaysia’s commercial capital Saturday. Some businesses, especially around the busy central market, opted to pull down steel shutters. At Merdeka Square, police armed with tear gas had been preparing to repel protesters since cordoning off the area Friday morning.
When a group of protesters began to move toward Merdeka Square amid loud chants, police acted quickly, launching tear gas and firing water cannon, sending large groups of protesters running up city streets to avoid the acrid fumes from tear-gas canisters. Outside the Sogo department store, protesters overturned a police car, which allegedly had hit two protesters, while volleys of tear gas penetrated deep into the crowd.
“I was hit by tear gas. It was not very pleasant,” Sen. Nicholas Xenophon from Australia, who is leading an international fact-finding mission on electoral overhauls, told The Wall Street Journal. “There is an Arab Spring. This is the Malaysia Spring. There is an unstoppable desire for reform.”
Mr. Najib’s reformist credentials likely will be undermined by the police action, which march organizers described as disproportionate to the threat posed. Yet some political analysts said Saturday’s protest might not necessarily hurt him or the ruling National Front coalition in an election.
James Chin, a political science professor at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, who attended the demonstration, said many protesters were looking for a confrontation and that this might play into Mr. Najib’s hands if he calls an early election. “The reforms will still be on,” Mr. Chin said. “But the core of the regime will remain intact.”