After mass arrests, authorities shrug off rare Malaysia protests

This weekend's turnout of at least 20,000 protesters, despite government warnings not to participate, could galvanize opposition support ahead of upcoming elections.

Lai Seng Sin/AP
Police fired tear gas and detained hundreds of activists as demonstrators massed across Malaysia's main city demanding electoral reforms in the country's biggest political rally in years.

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Malaysian police cracked down on an opposition rally Saturday, using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the more than 20,000 people who had gathered in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, to demand election reforms.

One person died and more than 1,600 were arrested in the country's largest demonstration in four years, though authorities say the detained were later released.

The huge turnout, despite a security lockdown in the capital and government warnings not to participate in the gathering it had deemed illegal, was a significant show of dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition and could affect upcoming elections. The protesters were calling for a more a transparent voting process and changes to prevent irregularities they say help the ruling coalition.

The crackdown

Police put up barriers, blocked roads and shut down train stations, then sent water cannons and riot police with tear gas to the protest. The AFP international news service reports that a man died while running away from a police tear gas attack during the demonstration, while the police claimed he was a bystander who died of a heart attack. A police spokesman said that the 1,667 people arrested for illegal assembly Saturday, including opposition leaders, were released near midnight.

Malaysian newspaper Malaysia Kini reports that police used excessive force on demonstrators during the protest. The paper reports that police kicked protesters who had fallen to the ground, rammed protesters with police cars, and fired tear gas canisters directly into the crowd, where they injured people, rather than into the air.

An attempt to hurt Malaysia?

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak Sunday defended the crackdown, saying the protest was an attempt to hurt Malaysia’s reputation, reports AFP.

"They said they wanted to hold a peaceful rally. If the police had not monitored it, it would not have been peaceful," he said.

He also accused opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of using the rally to gain political support.

"He knows that if he does not do anything, we will win in the 13th general election,” said the prime minister.

Mr. Razak also called on government supporters to be vocal, according to the Malaysian newspaper The Star.

“They must stop being the silent majority. There are many ways in which you can voice your opinion including using the social network,” he said.

The state news agency, Bernama, issued a statement saying the rally was aimed at “tarnishing Malaysia’s image internationally.”

When will the elections be held?

Razak had enjoyed high popularity, with his approval rating at 69 percent in February. But Reuters reports that the leader may hold off on calling elections now that the demonstration may have bolstered the opposition’s strength. He must hold elections by mid-2013.

Reuters also reports the instability may hold up economic reforms that were seen as necessary to entice investment, and that the prime minister’s tough stand against the opposition will have a polarizing effect in Malaysia.

Malaysia Kini reports that the rally had mixed reviews among analysts and Malaysians, with some predicting it will not have a potent effect on the political process. Others argued that the rally will bolster the opposition, and noting that the rally drew a multi-racial crowd, many of whom had not participated in demonstrations before.

[Editor's note: The original version misstated the date of the protests.]

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