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Malaysian police on Saturday fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators who gathered in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur to rally for fair elections in the country’s largest anti-government protest in almost 10 years.
Despite the pouring rain and heavy police presence, more than 10,000 people gathered early Saturday at several different locations in the city centre and marched their way to the royal palace to hand in a memorandum appealing for royal intervention in the coming elections, which is not due until 2009 but is widely expected to be held before the end of the year.
Shouting “Long Live the king” and “Save Malaysia,” the protestors, who donned yellow as a sign of support for royalty, waited outside the palace gates until the king’s secretary received the memorandum from president of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia, Abdul Hadi Awang.
Just minutes earlier and several kilometres away, police fired tear gas and water cannons at several thousand people gathered at the Jamek Mosque in the city centre after they ignored warnings to disperse.
Police say the gathering and march were illegal, as the organizers failed to get a permit which is required in Malaysia for any public gathering involving more than five people.
However, rights groups have slammed the police and the government for not issuing the permit, saying that the people’s freedom of expression was being stifled.
The reasons given by the police were that the massive protests would inconvenience motorists and that the demonstrations were a hazard to public safety.
“We will be no different from Myanmar and Pakistan,” said Lim Guan Eng, the Secretary-General of the opposition Democratic Action Party. “It is paranoia to the stage of hysteria,” he said, referring to the massive police presence, including riot officers and helicopters.
The purpose of Saturday’s demonstrations is to call for the removal of “phantom voters” or bogus names from electoral rolls, a crackdown on government workers using absentee ballots, and access to state-controlled media for all political parties.
“We are here to make our voice heard, that we want fair and free elections for this land,” said Joshua Chin, a lawyer and member of the country’s Bar Council.
“Our calls for a fair election have in the past fallen on deaf ears, and so now, we seek the king himself to ensure that the Election Commission does its job right,” said Chin, who was one of hundreds of lawyers who joined in the march.
“We hope that as the king looks out of the palace and sees this sea of yellow, he will realize we are crying out to him to bring justice to a system gone wrong.”
Earlier in the week, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi urged organizers to call off the protests, saying that “democracy through street demonstrations” could not be accepted.
Saturday’s public gathering is the largest the country has seen in almost 10 years.
In September 1998, more than 10,000 people took to the streets after then deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim was sacked and subsequently jailed by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, on charges of corruption and sexual misconduct.
Anwar subsequently formed a political party, which was one of the 70 organizers of Saturday’s demonstrations.
Activists say Malaysian elections are generally tilted in favour of the ruling National Front coalition, due to the redrawing of constituencies to weed out known opposition supporters. There are also frequent allegations of vote-buying, election commission bias and the use of public funds and the media by the ruling parties.
The National Front has been in power since Malaysia’s independence in 1952 from the British.