Weeks of rising tensions in Malaysia boiled over Saturday as police fired tear gas and water cannons on activists in downtown Kuala Lumpur and arrested more than a thousand people at the country’s largest political rally in several years.
Thousands of protesters seeking reforms to Malaysia’s electoral
system descended upon central Kuala Lumpur by mid-afternoon, despite
stern warnings from the government, which sealed off roads and shut down
train stations to try to keep people away. Federal police said they had
detained 1,667 people. Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the main organizers
of the rally, had been detained but was later released.
Authorities fired their water cannons and tear gas to scatter the
crowds as they tried to mass near the city’s famous Merdeka Stadium,
while helicopters buzzed overhead. Witnesses said police charged on
demonstrators with batons, while other protesters shouted “Reform!” and
“Long live the people!”
There were no immediate reports of serious injuries. Authorities
estimated the total number of protesters at 5,000, though supporters of
the activists said they believed the number was as high as 50,000.
Police use tear gas on demonstrators in Malaysia as opposition leader is among those injured. Video courtesy of Reuters.
The rally – and the government’s response – could dent Malaysia’s
reputation as one of Asia’s most stable and predictable countries.
Although the predominantly-Muslim nation is often held up as a model in
the Muslim world for its successful economy and modern infrastructure,
it has become increasingly fractured along racial lines in recent years
as ethnic Chinese, Indian and other residents demand reforms to boost
their standing compared with the country’s powerful Malay majority.
Activists organized Saturday’s rally to publicize their demands for
changes to Malaysia’s electoral system, including equal media coverage
for all election candidates and stronger measures to curb fraud,
including the past practice of people voting multiple times. Although
fresh elections aren’t required under Malaysian law until spring 2013,
many analysts expect Prime Minister Najib Razak – whose ruling coalition
has long dominated the country – to call them much earlier.
Authorities have argued that the group behind the rally – known as
Bersih, or “clean”— is outlawed because it is not formally registered,
and that its real intent is to boost opposition parties ahead of any
planned vote and threaten public order. Bersih leaders contend their
group is a coalition of existing registered organizations and therefore
A government spokesman said Saturday afternoon that the protesters
ignored efforts by authorities to steer them to a sanctioned rally site
and that officials therefore had no choice but to take actions to
protect ordinary citizens. Officials also noted that at least two
well-known pro-government protesters were detained after clashing with
Mr. Najib said Saturday that the protesters only represent a minority
of Malaysians and that he still enjoys the support of most people. “If
there are people who want to hold the illegal rally, there are even more
who are against their plan,” he said, according to the national news
Authorities arrested more than 200 activists in the days leading up
to the protest, leading to a rare intervention by Malaysia’s
constitutional monarch, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, who issued a
statement asking both sides to step back from the brink of a broader
conflict. The tensions appeared to ease for a while, as protest
organizers negotiated with authorities to schedule a sanctioned rally at
a site approved by the government.
But the talks broke down by week’s end, and government officials
began warning residents it would tolerate no public demonstration at
The last time Bersih held a protest in Kuala Lumpur, in 2007, a
similar script played out, with tens of thousands of people appearing
and authorities resorting to water cannons and tear gas to disperse the
crowds. A few months later, the ruling National Front coalition lost its
two-thirds majority in Malaysia’s Parliament for the first time in
Since then, Mr. Najib has had some success in calming matters and
reasserting his backers’ control. He took over the premiership in 2009
with a goal of halting the opposition’s momentum and backed modest
economic reforms that helped win back some support for the ruling United
Malays National Front. He also launched a “1Malaysia” campaign aimed at
celebrating the country’s racial diversity and bridging some of its
He benefited, too, from the ongoing troubles for Malaysia’s
charismatic opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who authorities put on
trial for allegedly breaking Malaysia’s strict sodomy laws, which he
denies. Mr. Anwar said on Twitter Saturday that he sustained a “minor
injury” at the rally when his group was hit by tear gas, the Associated
Press said, though immediate details on his condition were not
available. A press aide for Mr. Anwar said he was leaving a Kuala Lumpur
hotel when he was hit with the tear gas.
Some analysts believe the opposition will be emboldened by the rally,
and the government’s difficulty in containing it, and may take other
steps in the months ahead.
The protest “will have long-term consequences for Najib because there
will be a blowback – a lot of people thought we were past authoritarian
methods,” said James Chin, a political science professor at the
Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, speaking before the
demonstrations kicked off. If the authorities had allowed the protest to
go ahead without interference, it likely would have passed without
major incident, he said. “It is a stupid thing they overreacted” and
tried to block it, he said.
Protesters on the scene, meanwhile, said they were heartened by the
turnout despite official efforts to keep the number of participants low.
“The system must change,” said one protester from the northern state
of Kedah, Akashnan Ahmad, whose glasses were smashed in a confrontation
with police. “Look around, see the young faces – they want clean
“We have proven a point despite all the attacks on the people,” said
another protester, S. Arutchelvan, who is Secretary General of the
Socialist Party of Malaysia.