Malaysia Street Protests Averted as Group Agrees to Use Stadium

A Malaysian election-rights group agreed to a government offer to hold a protest rally in a stadium rather than on the streets, easing a standoff that has led to more than 100 arrests.

The July 9 protest “is going to be in a stadium but we don’t know which stadium yet,” Maria Chin Abdullah, a steering committee member of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, said in a telephone interview. Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters today the government is prepared to meet with the group comprised of non-governmental organizations supported by opposition parties.

Failure by the government and the group known as “Bersih” to abide by an accord could lead to violent confrontations between police and rival protesters, say analysts such as Joseph Chinyong Liow. Similar protests by the group seeking changes to the electoral system in 2007 drew 40,000 people in the capital of Kuala Lumpur and water canons were used to disperse crowds.

“Even though the respective parties have claimed that the protests will be peaceful, when people gather together in large numbers and emotions are riled up and provocations start, there is every danger that things might get out of hand,” said Liow, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Police Detention

Police have detained more than 100 people for inciting others to join the rally, Inspector-General of Police Ismail Omar said in a telephone interview yesterday.

“We are prepared to meet them,” Najib told reporters in today in Putrajaya, outside of Kuala Lumpur. “But they must ensure that they come in peace and go back in peace.” Ethnic Malay rights groups including Pertubuhan Pribumi Perkasa Malaysia and UMNO Youth will not hold counter demonstrations, Najib said.

Calling off a street rally will be good for markets in the long term, Citigroup Inc. analyst Ng Yong Yin said today in an e-mail before the group agreed to the stadium venue. “So far, the market has not reacted to the seemingly tense political condition on the ground,” Ng said.

The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index was little changed to close at 1581.85. The benchmark closed at a record on July 1.

Bersih, which means “clean” in the Malay language, is a coalition of 62 non-government organizations and isn’t affiliated with any political party. Opposition groups have backed the Bersih campaign, which includes calls for a broad rewriting of election laws.

Election Laws

Bersih is seeking changes such as ensuring campaigns last at least 21 days to allow candidates to explain their platforms to voters. In the last general election in March 2008, the campaign period was eight days. The group is also asking that indelible ink be applied to voters’ fingers when casting ballots to prevent people from voting more than once.

The government’s arrest of Bersih supporters has drawn condemnation from rights groups including Human Rights Watch. Najib’s coalition should “step back from this intimidation campaign, and negotiate with Bersih and it’s supporters in civil society to address their legitimate concerns for electoral reform,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement yesterday.

The decision to allow the Bersih rally to go ahead in a stadium underlines a commitment to freedom of expression when public safety can be ensured, the government said in an e-mailed statement.

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