Police Fire Tear Gas as Thousands Defy Malaysian Protest Ban

Police fired tear gas and fought with protesters in Kuala Lumpur today as thousands of people marched calling for “reform” and cleaner elections, defying a new government ban on street protests in Malaysia before national polls expected this year.

Police also used water cannons as protesters threw shoes, bottles and chairs while trying to break through barricades to enter a square where the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih, wanted to hold a sit-in. Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government enacted legislation this month banning such protests after police detained more than 1,600 people during a similar rally in July.

“A group of protesters tried to provoke a violent confrontation with police,” Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in an e-mailed statement. Some 272 people were detained as of 7:15 p.m. local time today, Assistant Commissioner of Police Ramli Mohamed Yusof said by phone.

Najib’s handling of the clashes could affect plans for timing an election. Arrests during a street rally by the same group last year led to a drop in the prime minister’s approval rating. A delayed vote would prevent him from taking advantage of a swell in support that followed increases to civil servant salaries and cash payments to poor households.

Police Cordon

“The Malaysian government is once again showing its contempt for its people’s basic rights and freedoms,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement today. “Despite all the talk of ‘reform’ over the past year, we’re seeing a repeat of repressive actions by a government that does not hesitate to use force when it feels its prerogatives are challenged.”

The authorities began cordoning off Kuala Lumpur’s Independence Square yesterday after getting a court order preventing people from entering the area where Bersih planned a sit-in. Crowds marched in groups toward the square from different parts of the city, including the 88-floor Petronas Twin Towers.

One police car was overturned and a gun snatched by a protester, a Royal Malaysia Police spokesman said. The pistol was later retrieved, Hishammuddin said in a Twitter posting. Two officers were admitted to hospital with injuries and 20 others received outpatient treatment, he said.

Lynas Upset

Around 25,000 people took part in the rally, Bernama reported, without citing where it got the information. While primarily a pro-democracy rally, some called on the government to block plans by Australian miner Lynas Corp. to start rare-earth refining in the country on environmental and safety concerns.

Smaller rallies were held in other Malaysian cities and abroad, including Sydney.

Najib’s approval rating in peninsular Malaysia fell to a two-year low of 59 percent a month after last year’s protests, according to the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. It increased to 69 percent in February after the government announced it would give away cash handouts of 500 ringgit ($164) to households with monthly incomes of 3,000 ringgit or less, and overhaul security laws. The margin of error was 3.07 percent.

Bersih’s Demands

The government does allow protests, so long as they are peaceful and held at appropriate venues, Bernama quoted Najib as saying today.

Bersih is demanding that election officials resign after failing to implement all but one of the group’s eight demands, including a minimum 21-day campaign period, Ambiga Sreenevasan, the group’s co-chairwoman, said April 24. She received a copy yesterday of a court order from Kuala Lumpur Magistrates Court Judge Zaki Asyraf Zubir that prohibits the public from joining any rally at Independence Square until May 1.

Police used tear gas and water cannons to break up the July rally attended by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who suffered a head injury in the crackdown. The group, whose name means “clean” in the Malay language, wants its demands met before the next poll, including the use of absentee ballots and a review of the electoral roll to remove dead people and duplicate voters.

Decelerating Growth

Najib’s ruling National Front coalition has made preparations to call an election in May or June, according to four officials who spoke last month. The vote required by early next year will take place amid decelerating growth in Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy.

Gross domestic product is set to grow 4 percent in 2012 on a weak global outlook, slower than regional rivals Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, according to the Asian Development Bank. That compares with last year’s 5.1 percent rise.

Earlier this month, a parliamentary committee that includes opposition members made 22 recommendations to improve the election process. The government, which agreed to Bersih’s proposal to use indelible ink on fingers to prevent multiple voting, isn’t legally bound to follow the committee’s advice.

The Election Commission denied that voter registration rolls are flawed and said it would ensure at least a 10-day campaign period, according to a statement on its website.

In 2008, when eight days of campaigning preceded elections, Najib’s National Front coalition won by the narrowest margin since independence in 1957. A Bersih rally held three months before the vote increased momentum for the opposition, according to Joseph Chinyong Liow, associate dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“I’m sure this weighs on Prime Minister Najib’s mind,” he said. “It’s very clear already that the opposition has every intention to piggyback on Bersih.”

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