Clashes as Malaysians rally for clean elections

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Malaysian police fired teargas and water cannon Saturday as thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital to demand sweeping electoral reforms ahead of widely expected polls.
Protesters marched to Independence Square in central Kuala Lumpur, defying a lockdown and a ban on gatherings in the area that had raised questions about a pledge by Prime Minister Najib Razak to expand civil liberties.
The otherwise peaceful rally was disrupted when hundreds of protesters angry at being denied access to the square trampled razor wire, pushed aside barricades and were met with teargas and chemical-laced water.
National police spokesman Ramli Yoosuf said at least 222 people were arrested but expected the figure to rise.
The fracas marked the second straight year that police clashed with a pro-democracy rally organised by the election reform pressure group Bersih. A protest march last year was crushed by police with 1,600 people arrested.
Bersih and the political opposition are demanding far-reaching reforms by Najib to end what they say has been decades of manipulation by the ruling coalition aimed at keeping itself in power. “The message we are sending to Najib is that we must have clean elections!” opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim shouted to a crowd just before the clashes began.
Najib denied any electoral bias. “We do not want to be elected through cheating. We are a government chosen by the people,” the official Bernama news agency quoted him as saying.
Bersih demands a thorough vetting of the voter roll following revelations of widespread phantom or duplicate voter registrations, a complete overhaul of the national Election Commission, which it accuses of bias, and other reforms.
Criticism of the harsh response to last year’s rally stung Najib, who shortly afterward implemented a series of political reform steps to shore up voter support. But he faces fresh criticism after the government banned rallying at the square and allegations of harassment of activists in recent days.
“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,” Human Rights Watch said in response to the clashes at the square.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said “despite claims to the contrary, the government fully respects peoples’ right to peaceful protest”. “Overall… this afternoon’s protest passed off without major incident,” he said in a statement.
Police estimated at least 30,000 people participated in the rally, while independent Malaysian media put the number at more than twice that. As white teargas smoke filled the air and drifted down nearby streets, riot police quickly forced back the protesters who had entered the square and regained control.
Nearby, protesters retaliated by throwing empty water bottles at police. An AFP reporter saw a police car that had been turned on its side and its windshield smashed, with streaks of blood visible on the pavement.
“We want peace, we want justice for our country. We don’t want to make any trouble,” said housewife Carmen Yap, 42, her eyes watering and bloodshot from the teargas. The crowd had mostly dispersed by late afternoon.
Protesters, many dressed in the yellow of the Bersih clean-election movement — Bersih means “clean” in Malay — had marched toward the square but were thwarted by a lockdown that included about 2,000 armed police.
After last year’s rally was crushed, public outrage moved Najib to set up a panel to explore electoral reforms.