Malaysia rally turns ugly – The Diplomat/RTÉ World Report

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Protestors flee teargas near Masjid Jamek in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Police turned on tens of thousands of protesters demonstrating for electoral reform in Malaysia on Saturday. It might not help the government’s image ahead of elections

KUALA LUMPUR – On Saturday, tens of thousands of yellow and green-clad protestors seeking changes to Malaysia’s electoral system were driven back from the city’s Independence Square by volleys of water-cannon and teargas fired after protestors pushed through barricades sealing-off the plaza. Almost 400 demonstrators were subsequently arrested by police, including some seen being dragged away holding bloodied faces and bruised limbs.

Moments after Malaysia’s parliamentary opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim addressed the crowd at the front line, several protestors close to the police barricade suddenly shouted “back, back,” before pushing through the police lines around the Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, the iconic downtown location where the protestors sought to hold their sit-down demonstration seeking changes to how Malaysia holds elections.

Bersih, which means ‘clean’ in Malay, is a grouping of NGOs and activists who say that Malaysia’s election system is skewed in favour of the current government, a coalition that has governed Malaysia since independence from Great Britain in 1957.

Recent electoral reforms proposed by the government do not go far enough, say the protest leaders, who have been criticised in some quarters locally for being too close to Malaysia’s parliamentary opposition. Bersih says that anyone is free to support their electoral reform cause, including the current government.

Protestors breach police lines near Independence Sq. earlier Saturday (Simon Roughneen)

Bersih said on Friday that they expected 100,000 people to take to Kuala Lumpur’s streets on Saturday, and though the eventual turn-out remains open to estimates ranging from 30,000 to 250,000, the protestors lived up to their pledge to march from several locations in the city to Independence Square, where the organisers hoped for “goodwill from the government that they will let us use Dataran Merdeka, which belongs to the rakyat (people).”

The protestors say that they had the right to gather at the square, but the government ruled otherwise, saying it offered the organisers 4 alternative venues – a move that Bersih said came too late to be logistically-feasible.

Bersih leader Ambiga Sreenevasan told media after the rally that a crowd of 250,000 turned out, concluding that “in that sense it (the rally) was a success”. But under a searing southeast Asian sun glinting off the high-rise skyline backdrop, Malaysia’s biggest city once more turned into a battleground, repeating the events of the July 9 2011 Bersih rally, the previous occasion the electoral reform group took to the streets.

Earlier the atmosphere was more jovial, as the protestors gathered in streets around Independence Sq. (Simon Roughneen)

But this time around the blame-game could go both ways, with some protestors seen pushing through barricades, followed by police firing water-cannon laced with chemicals and tear-gas and sending the crowd running back toward a nearby mosque and train station. Police subsequently advancing on the retreating throng, spraying water-cannon into the coughing, red-eyed crowd, which largely dispersed within 45 minutes.

In a statement released early Saturday evening, Malaysia’s home affairs minister Hishamuddin Hussein praised police and put the blame squarely on protestors. “A group of protesters tried to provoke a violent confrontation with the police” he said.

“I am not surprised they released the gas,’ protestor  Bert Chen, speaking after leaving the protest area. Raising his right arm to show a grazed elbow, he said “I fell, and lost my shoes”, pointing to sock-covered feet. “There was so much confusion, and people were running in several directions.”

Protestors carrying environmental slogans (Simon Roughneen)

Nodding toward the coils of razor wire running along the edge of the Independence Square, protestor Norariani Harris said “people have the right to sit there peacefully”, referring to the square, “but this wire is like something inhuman.”

Saturday’s turn of events marked a repeat of a previous Bersih rally held July 9 last year, when in a perceived over-reaction to a peaceful protest, over 1600 people were arrested, including opposition leaders. That crackdown prompted a decline in the government’s popularity, though Prime Minister Najib Razak recently recovered some lost ground in opinion polls, partly on the back of cash handouts to RM500 to households taking home less than RM3,000 a month.

This time around it was expected that the government would not risk a repeat of last years clampdown, which resulted in a dip in the government’s popularity.

The short translation of this protestor’s placard is ‘Save Malaysia from the fox’, an anti-government message, according to Fakhrul Anwar, pictured holding the sign (Simon Roughneen)

In turn, the loss of face incurred by the government last year seemingly prompted a reform drive starting in September 2011, with changes proposed to Malaysia’s print media regime, to draconian-sounding laws allowing detention without trial, as well as new laws allowing peaceful protests.

Most of the new laws have been criticised, however, as not going far enough, and, speaking close to police lines earlier Saturday, protestor Fuzeani Fauzi said “the only transparent thing about this government is their lack of sincerity and transparency.”

The reforms are thought to be part of a pre-election drive by the Barisan Nasional (National Front) government, which though winning the last 2008 election, suffered its worst-ever result. A resurgent opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim – who in January was acquitted a controversial and, to many, politicised case in which he was accused of sodomising a male aide – hopes to make further inroads into the BN monopoly on power, if not winning the election outright.

Protestor tries to present flowers to police (Simon Roughneen)

The Malaysian opposition feels that this outcome is made impossible by the current electoral system, which – among other allegations – is said to include tens of thousands of false names on the electoral roll. \

The opposition views election commission is regarded as tainted by the opposition, and on Friday, Malaysia’s online media revealed that the commission head failed to disclose past membership of the United National Malays Organisation (UMNO), the main party in the BN government. Bersih head Ambiga Sreenevasan told a Friday press conference that “to be quite honest, I was shocked beyond belief on hearing that they might have been UMNO members.”

Though not required under law until April 2013, an election could come as soon as June 5, with the government obliged to give only a week’s notice under current laws, another complaint made by Bersih.

Today’s clampdown could mean a delayed election, if it means a repeat drop in popularity for the government, which is due to launch a new minimum wage next week, the latest in a series of populist-sounding measures.

But, if the government can blame protestors for pushing through police barriers today – apparently contravening pledges made by the Bersih leaders – then it might work against the opposition come election time, though recent opinion surveys conducted by the Merdeka Center, a Malaysian polling group, point out that some of those who gave a thumbs-up to the prime minister would also vote for the opposition.

“It appears as if the opposition is trying to leap-frog over Bersih,” said Choong Pui Yee, analyst at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, who was present at the rally on Saturday, but she added that “the vast majority of the thousands of protestors were peaceful and the police over-reacted.”

Police and medics flee first volley of teargas after protestors breach barrier (Simon Roughneen)

Protestor nursing bruised face being led away by police (Simon Roughneen)

More teargas as protestors flee the rally site (Simon Roughneen)

View along the front line with KL Tower in the background (Simon Roughneen)

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