Malaysian police yesterday fired teargas and water cannon as crowds of protesters demanding electoral reforms surged into a central square in Kuala Lumpur.
The protesters trampled through barbed wire barricades as they poured into the heavily guarded Independence Square, defying a ban on holding the rally at the venue in the heart of the congested capital.
The rally follows one that was crushed by police last July, when 1,600 people were arrested, and marks a major test for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has sought to portray himself as a reformer ahead of widely expected polls.
The protesters scampered and sought shelter at nearby buildings as police fired repeated rounds of teargas and water cannon.
A correspondent said police descended on the venue to beat back the protesters and were in control of the square, while dozens of people were rounded up and held inside a police truck.
“We want peace, we want justice for our country. We don’t want to make any trouble,” said housewife Carmen Yap, 42, who attended the protest with her husband and 10-year-old son.
The protesters confronted a lockdown in various parts of the city.
Large crowds of people, many in the yellow colours of the reform movement, gathered at various points around Kuala Lumpur, defying a ban on holding the rally at Independence Square.
But a heavy police presence hindered access to the city centre, including about 2,000 armed police deployed around the sealed-off square as a police helicopter buzzed low overhead.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said earlier that the demonstrators were intent on marching to the square, as AFP reported.
National police spokesman Ramli Yoosuf said about 20,000 protestors had gathered at various locations around the square.
“Please obey the law and stay away from the square. It is a banned area,” he said.
On Friday, it obtained a court order banning public gatherings there, provoking outrage from the opposition and rights groups who say the restrictions violate free speech and assembly.
Earlier yesterday, the crowds were vocal but peaceful, with a carnival atmosphere prevailing in some areas as people held balloons while others smiled as they snapped photographs of themselves in front of the razor wire.
“The government is being high handed in denying the people the changes we want. We demand free and fair elections,” said Zainuddin Tahar, 54, a pensioner from central Malaysia, who wore a yellow shirt.
Last July’s rally brought tens of thousands to the streets but was met with police tear gas and water cannon.
A resulting backlash prompted Najib to set up a panel whose eventual report suggested a range of electoral changes, but main rally organizers Bersih 2.0 and the opposition say the recommendations fell far short.
They demand a complete overhaul of a nationwide voter roll they say is packed with phantom or duplicate voter registrations, and reform of an Election Commission viewed as biased in favor of the ruling coalition.
Speculation is rife that Najib could call polls as early as June, and Bersih is demanding elections be postponed until full reforms are implemented