Major roads into Malaysia’s capital city will be closed and buses diverted tomorrow when a group campaigning for fair elections plans to defy a government ban on staging a protest rally in Kuala Lumpur, the police said.
“Anything that is under and within the powers of the police will be used depending on the circumstances,” Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters in Kuala Lumpur today. This includes potentially using the Internal Security Act or Emergency Ordinance which allow for detention without trial, he said.
The lockdown comes after Prime Minister Najib Razak’s cabinet ordered that a rally planned by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections tomorrow must be held in a stadium outside of the city. The lobby group, also known as Bersih, still plans to hold its rally in Kuala Lumpur’s Merdeka Stadium, its steering committee said in an e-mailed statement today.
Merdeka Stadium has historical significance, having been erected for Malaysia’s declaration of independence in 1957. More than 300,000 people may attend this weekend’s assembly, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told reporters on July 6.
Major roads into Kuala Lumpur will be shut from midnight tonight until 10 p.m. tomorrow, Assistant Superintendent Zaiham Mohd Kahar said in an interview today. “Only people with reasons or business will be allowed to enter the city,” he said. This is “to avoid traffic congestion in the city and any untoward incidents.”
Police obtained court orders yesterday barring 91 people, including leaders of three separate planned protests, from entering the capital tomorrow, the Malaysian Insider reported, citing city police chief Amar Singh. The people named in the court order included Bersih Chairman Ambiga Sreenevasan, as well as the heads of two Malay rights groups which have threatened to hold rival rallies.
“There is no reason whatsoever to ban anyone from entering the city,” Bersih said. “This constitutes an unwarranted denial of their freedom of movement.”
The coalition, comprising more than 60 non-governmental organizations, agreed to cancel planned street demonstrations and move their protest into a stadium after Malaysia’s King intervened to express concern over potential harm to the country.
Bersih wants electoral changes, such as lengthening campaign periods to at least 21 days and using indelible ink on fingers to prevent people from voting more than once.
Najib needs to call elections within two years. The Election Commission is looking into extending the campaign period and plans to use biometric fingerprinting instead of indelible ink, Election Commission Chairman Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof said in a television interview with TV3 and Bernama on July 2. Foreign observers may also be invited, he said.
More than 230 activists have been arrested over the past two weeks with six people remaining in custody, police public relations officer Ramli Mohamed Yoosuf told reporters. This has drawn criticism from groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Similar protests by Bersih seeking changes to the electoral system in 2007 drew 40,000 people in the capital of Kuala Lumpur and water cannons were used to disperse crowds.
The U.S. Embassy issued an advisory today urging its citizens to stay away. “Even demonstrations that are meant to be peaceful can become violent and unpredictable,” it said. “You should avoid them if at all possible.”
Two Malay rights groups have threatened rival rallies should Bersih go ahead with street protests tomorrow, Perkasa and UMNO Youth, which is an arm of Najib’s ruling party, the United Malays Nasional Organisation. The authorities rejected applications to use stadiums within Kuala Lumpur by all three groups, Hishamuddin said.
Bersih’s rally should be held in a stadium outside of Kuala Lumpur, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said yesterday. It should take up an offer by the chief minister of Selangor state, which is controlled by Anwar’s People’s Alliance coalition, to hold its rally in a stadium there, he said.
No temporary bus permits will be granted to ferry protestors into the city today and tomorrow, the Land Public Transport Commission said. Extra buses are only allowed in Kuala Lumpur during festive seasons, commission Chairman Syed Hamid Albar said in an interview today.
-- Editors: Barry Porter, Patrick Harrington.