Three days after Malaysian riot police used tear gas and water cannons

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By Shibani Mahtani and Celine Fernandez The Wall Street Journal

Three days after Malaysian riot police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse approximately 50, 000 demonstrators rallying for electoral reform, political opponents in the country—preparing for a crucial election that could be called as early as June—are locked in argument over who is to blame for the violence.

Saturday’s rally, the third organized by Malaysia’s Bersih group, was already slated to be a tense confrontation between Prime Minister Najib’s coalition and the broadly antigovernment demonstrators seeking “free and fair elections,” including allowing overseas Malaysians to vote.

In days leading up to the rally, the group pushed for their gathering to be held at the historical Merdeka Square, despite repeated police and government warnings to keep away from the area. On Saturday, riot police barricaded the Square, pushing back against demonstrators who dismantled some of the barriers. Police officials have said the police action was only taken once the barricades were breached.

Government officials have played down the severity and extent of the violence involved in Saturday’s protest, with opposition voices jumping on the occasion to widely condemn what they say is a sign that Mr. Najib’s government remains heavy-handed in response to civil dissatisfaction.

“A group of protesters tried to provoke a violent confrontation with the police, but overall at this stage it would seem this afternoon’s protest passed off without major incident,” said Minister of Home Affairs Hishammudin Hussein on Saturday evening.

Bersih protestors at a mass rally calling for more transparency in elections in Kuala Lumpur on April 28.
“Despite opposition claims to the contrary, the government fully respects peoples’ right to peaceful protest, which is enshrined under Malaysian law,” he continued.

At a news conference Monday, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim labeled the police’s use of tear gas and water cannons an “utter disappointment.”

“Just because some people decided to move to Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square), that an offense or crime in this country?” said Mr. Anwar in a news conference Monday. “It is the right of the people.”

Bersih leaders say the violence started only after police action and that their intention was for a peaceful rally.

“[Malaysians] did not come there for violence. All purported acts of violence took place only after the tear gas was fired,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the co-founders of the Bersih group, in a news conference after the rally. “All purported acts of violence took place only after the tear gas was fired. Until then, we had complete control over the situation.”

“There ought to be an independent inquiry in relations to [the way police handled the rally] – it must be absolutely impartial,” said South Australian Senator Nicholas Xenophon, who is part of a an international fact-finding mission on Malaysia’s elections.

Opposition leaders have also called for an independent inquiry into Saturday’s police action, but some government voices have blamed Mr. Anwar for the provocation—saying it was the opposition that pushed the protesters to move into Merdeka Square. Multiple videos posted on YouTube show opposition leaders signaling hand gestures that could be read as calls to break the barricades, though Mr. Anwar and his deputy Azmin Ali deny this, and say they were telling protesters to disperse.

Looming over the event is an election that has to be called before 2013 but will likely be much sooner. Analysts say questions arising from this weekend’s protest could hurt the credibility of both Mr. Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional, which is seen as heavy-handed and disproportionate even after implementing reforms, and equally, the opposition, which is seen as irresponsible and provocative.

“There are too many questions left hanging,” said Bridget Welsh, a professor at the Singapore Management University and a longtime observer of Malaysian politics. “But it is ultimately [Mr.] Najib who… has to take responsibility for what happened as the prime minister.”

In comments to the press, Mr. Najib said that the police were the “victims” of the rally’s violence, rather than the protesters or observers at the rally.

“The minute [Mr.] Najib called the police the ‘victims,’ it was the nail in the coffin of his ability to call himself a reformer,” Ms. Welsh said. “But [opposition] tactics make you wonder how much you can trust them as well.”

Analysts say that Mr. Najib may still choose to call elections early, emerging from this Bersih chapter relatively unscathed. A similar rally last year was markedly more violent, with the detention of more than 1,600 members of Bersih. International condemnation of that police action prompted Mr. Najib to enact a series of political reforms, including repealing the Internal Security Act.

But economists, too, say they would rather see an election sooner than later. Economists from the World Bank’s Malaysia branch have raised their concern over the uncertain timing of the elections, a process that they say could upset investor confidence and delay legislation needed for further economic growth.