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Malaysian Capital Braces for Electoral Reform Rally


Police blocks off the road leading to Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) in Kuala Lumpur ahead of Saturday's planned rally by "Bersih", an electoral reform coalition calling for clean and fair elections, July 8, 2011

Police blocks off the road leading to Dataran Merdeka (Merdeka Square) in Kuala Lumpur ahead of Saturday's planned rally by "Bersih", an electoral reform coalition calling for clean and fair elections, July 8, 2011

Authorities in Malaysia’s capital are bracing for a demonstration on Saturday that organizers hope will attract tens of thousands of people demanding free and fair elections.

Malaysia government says rally illegal

The Malaysia government has sternly rebuked the Bersih 2.0 protest organized by a loose coalition of 62 non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties.

More than 200 people have been arrested for actions in support of the rally, which organizers say is simply aimed at curbing electoral fraud. The government has responded in recent weeks by calling the rally illegal. Some supporters of Bersih, which means clean in Malay, were arrested because they wore yellow shirts, the color synonymous with the group.

Prime Minister Najib Razak wants the rally be moved to a stadium to avoid any trouble with supporters from his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has been in power for more than 50 years. The Malay nationalist group known as Perkasa says it will organize its own counter-rally in support of the ruling party.

Protesters plan to proceed with rally

Protestors insist they will march toward the stadium anyway and a last minute permit has been granted by the police to allow them to proceed.

Pang Khee Teik is a local human rights activist and Bersih supporter. He says government attempts to stop the rally have backfired by publicizing the event and drawing attention to the government’s harsh response. He says he expects even more people will attend than organizers first expected.

“They initially had not planned to join the movement they are now joining because they are simply upset with what the government has done in its attempt to clamp down on this rally. So I would say the number has probably grown exponentially, so big that it’s hard to predict now what the numbers will be like, especially when I just heard that the rally has been granted a police permit to hold it in the stadium,” Teik stated.

Teik says the objective of the rally was simply a call to curb electoral fraud. He says the government reaction had been excessive. The government insists it is only acting in the general interest and that people are free to protest if the rally remains peaceful.

Police have also rejected claims that the Internet and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have been blocked in an attempt to disrupt the rally.

Authorities tighten security, shut down public transportation

However, roads around Merdeka Stadium where protestors intend to gather will be closed to automobiles. Public transport will also be shut down. Ninety-one people associated with Bersih and leaders from all political parties have been banned from attending.

Bersih held a similar rally in 2007, when about 50,000 people took to the streets. Riot police eventually broke up the demonstrations with water cannons and tear gas.

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