July 9 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysian police fired tear gas and rounded up protest leaders as thousands of opposition-backed activists defied a government ban to march on Kuala Lumpur’s Merdeka Stadium today to demand fair elections.
Some 1,667 people, including 167 women and children, were arrested around the city by 6:40 p.m. local time, according to a police website. Protest leader Ambiga Sreenevasan, chairman of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, was among those detained, while opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim suffered a head injury when tear gas was fired, his daughter Nurul Izzah told reporters in Kuala Lumpur today.
The showdown comes amid rising pressure for political change in parts of Southeast Asia and ahead of general elections due in Malaysia within the next two years. Thai voters this week elected to throw out a party that used soldiers to disperse opposition protests last year that led to more than 90 deaths, while Singapore’s ruling party won its narrowest election victory since independence in May.
“I’m not a very brave man, I ran when they shot tear gases at me,” Wong Chin Huat, a member of the coalition’s steering committee, said in an interview. “I’m afraid, but I will walk. We have to overcome our fear. I believe that I have the right to walk in any part of the city.”
Major roads into Malaysia’s capital city were sealed with road blocks and barbed wire, train stations closed and buses diverted, leaving some parts of Kuala Lumpur deserted. Even so, thousands of people marched in the rain toward Merdeka Stadium, according to Bloomberg reporters at the scene. Another group was seen headed toward a royal palace wanting to hand a petition to the king, while a third gathered by the 88-floor Petronas Twin Towers.
The lobby group, also known as 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.
Water cannons were used to disperse crowds in 2007 when similar protests by Bersih, seeking changes to the electoral system, drew 40,000 people in Kuala Lumpur. Today’s rally attracted about 6,000 people, the Star newspaper reported online, citing Inspector-General of Police Ismail Omar. All those detained were scheduled to be released by 9:30 p.m., the Star said, city police CID chief Ku Chin Wah.
Ambiga’s coalition, which says it represents 60 non-governmental organizations, took to the streets after Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Cabinet ruled that it couldn’t hold a rally in a stadium inside the city as it might cause congestion.
Helicopters hovered overhead as riot police with water cannons stood by. Activists started to disperse after 4 p.m.
The protesters tried to give the impression Malaysia had no political stability, Prime Minister Najib Razak was cited as saying today by the official Bernama news service.
Bersih wanted to hold its rally in Merdeka Stadium as it has historical significance, having been erected for the country’s declaration of independence from the British in 1957. It had planned a street rally and decided to move its protest inside after King Mizan Zainal Abidin advised July 5 on the potential harm to the country.
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. International observers may also be invited, he said.
“The prime minister has been very long on his economic and government transformation, but a bit short on the democratic transformation and on human rights,” Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at the Selangor-based Merdeka Center for Opinion Research said in an interview.
Najib’s government unveiled economic and government transformation plans last year, aimed at boosting investment and improving efficiency and transparency. It identified $444 billion of private sector-led projects to champion in the current decade to help the Southeast Asian nation achieve its aim of attaining high-income status by 2020.
Malaysia’s policies favoring the country’s ethnic-Malay majority have held the economy back by spurring a brain drain and limiting foreign spending, the World Bank said in a report on April 28.
Police obtained court orders on July 7 barring 91 people, including leaders of three separate planned protests, from entering the capital today, according to notices published in the New Straits Times newspaper. The people named in the court order included Bersih’s chairman as well as the heads of two Malay rights groups opposed to the coalition which had threatened to hold rival rallies.
Ambiga and some other Bersih leaders defied the ban to hold a media briefing at a Kuala Lumpur hotel, also attended by opposition People’s Justice Party leader Anwar. They were blocked by police and tear gas fired as they tried to join a crowd trying to march toward the stadium.
Anwar was taken to hospital for treatment, his daughter said, without revealing the extent of his head injury. His bodyguard was “severely” injured by a tear gas canister, Nurul Izzah said.
Tian Chua, vice president of Anwar’s party, was among those a Bloomberg reporter saw detained by police. People’s Justice Party deputy president Azmin Ali was also arrested, along with three leaders of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, the Star said.
Two Malay rights groups, Perkasa and UMNO Youth, which is an arm of Najib’s ruling party, the United Malays Nasional Organisation, threatened to hold rival rallies today should Bersih go ahead with street protests. UMNO Youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin was also detained, the Star reported.
The authorities rejected applications to use stadiums within Kuala Lumpur by all three groups, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said on July 8.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Tighe in Sydney at email@example.com