Over 1,400 arrested and one dead as police and protestors clash in Malaysia
Over 1,400 people have been arrested and one person has died after tens of thousands of activists took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur Saturday to rally for electoral reform, where they braced tear gas, chemical-laced water cannons and baton-wielding police to call for an end to so-called “dirty politics”, vote-rigging and corruption.
An estimated 50,000 protestors defied a ban on the rally made by Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose National Front party has been in power since 1955. Twelve activists were reported injured, with some seen leaving the rally in handcuffs whilst bleeding.
The opposition-backed rally — organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, a loose group of 62 nongovernmental organisations — was strongly denounced by the government, who declared both the rally and its organisers illegal, and arrested over 200 supporters and leaders in the weeks leading up to it.
After a weeks-long campaign against the coalition — which included government-funded television and radio adverts warning people not to attend — police sealed off roads into the city centre, closed down metro stations and, according to some reports, patrolled hotel rooms late into Friday night to arrest any potential activists pre-rally.
Despite the government’s various efforts to prevent people from attending, however, many joined because of those efforts.
“I’m not usually political, but the things the government has been saying and the way it’s reacted to this rally made me want to come out and protest,” said Jan Lee, a management consultant.
As helicopters hovered overhead and riot police stood guard, the multi-ethnic mix of protestors, old and young, many of them in yellow — the banned colour of the coalition — walked calmly towards Independence Stadium, where the rally was planned.
Sporting yellow face paint and holding yellow balloons, they shouted “Clean up the elections” and “We want freedom, we want peace”. Police reacted by shooting tear gas and water cannons directly at protestors, some of whom were hit directly in the face.
“We have no human rights!” shouted one aged activist in yellow, ducking for cover. “I worry for the future of my children and grandchildren. I am 68 and I fight for a better Malaysia!”
Dispersing and regrouping as police advanced, protestors huddled for safety in doorways and alleyways, at one point seeking safety in front of a hospital, where police once more threw canisters of tear gas. An unconfirmed report soon circulated of hospital patients fainting from the fumes.
The coalition behind the rally — called Bersih, or “clean” in Malay — has been widely credited in recent years for creating a strong opposition movement, notably a landslide opposition victory in the 2008 elections, after Bersih held a rally in 2007 calling for reform.
Saturday’s activists — many of whom noted the ethnographically mixed group of protestors — said this rally could potentially topple the incumbent National Front in the next elections, slated for as early as this year. The National Front has long been criticised for polarising political groups by race.
“We are not happy with this government, because every election’s wins go to the prime minister’s party,” said taxi driver Kamal Nadir, 36, holding a wet handkerchief up to his face to block tear gas.
“The government is dirty, and that is why they are scared of the public. This party is no more. Look at what they do to us!”
But analysts say the government may try to hold off on elections to smooth things over.
“From Najib’s perspective, holding elections anytime soon would be a mistake because of the damage that has been done today,” Bridget Welsh, Malaysia specialist at Singapore Management University, told Reuters.
“The fact that such a large crowd turned up despite a crackdown shows that voter anger is deep and this is going to push a lot of people who are in the middle toward the opposition.”
Using roadblocks as their guides, police had dispersed activists into three or four separate crowds in an attempt to diminish their numbers, which some said caused more chaos than needed.
“This was meant to be a peaceful rally along one route only — to the stadium — but because the government banned it, now it’s tons of different routes with the city shut down,” said Andrew Yong.
Some found themselves caught up unawares in the rally, like tourist John Gilmore, 54, from Glasgow.
“I only discovered an hour ago there was a protest going on, when I couldn’t find a taxi to get into the city centre,” said the software engineer, his eyes watering as police threw a a canister of tear gas just a few feet away.
Bersih had planned to deliver to the king a memorandum of eight demands, ranging from freer media access for opposition parties, to electoral reforms like the use of indelible ink.
But many of the coalition’s leaders, including chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan, were arrested before the memorandum could be delivered.
Opposition MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, who, along with Ambiga, defied a police ban to attend the rally, found herself “kettled into” a tunnel along with her father, top opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
“Riot police shot tear gas at us from either side of the tunnel without warning and without reason,” she said.
“We were choking, we couldn’t breathe, we could hardly walk or see. I fell down, my father fell down and sustained a head injury, it was hell. I thought I was dying.”
Amnesty International has called the government’s response to the protest “the worst campaign of repression we’ve seen in decades”.
Despite Bersih calling the rally “one more step in the long walk for clean and fair elections in Malaysia”, its success was soured by the death of Baharuddin Ahmad, the husband of an opposition leader, who is said to have died after falling down when clashes broke out between riot police and protestors. His funeral will be held Sunday.