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Thousands Protest in Malaysia's Capital

Malaysian riot police officers fire tear gas at activists from Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) during a rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 9, 2011
Malaysian riot police officers fire tear gas at activists from Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih) during a rally in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, July 9, 2011

Thousands of protesters have descended on Malaysia's capital - despite the closing of key roads - to attend a banned rally demanding electoral reforms. Police fired rounds of tear gas and used water cannons to disperse the crowds. Police in the capital said more than 1,400 people were arrested Saturday. Most were expected to be released within a few hours.

Protesters from Bersih, a group of 62 non-governmental organizations and opposition parties, gathered in Kuala Lumpur early Saturday chanting anti-government slogans.

Some wore yellow shirts. Others, fearing arrest, chose not to wear the color synonymous with the movement. One man was dragged and kicked from outside the Chinese Maternity Hospital. Tear gas was then fired into the hospital grounds where protesters had sought shelter.

The government had declared the rally illegal. Police sealed off key roads, deployed water cannons and then opened fire with tear gas as crowds formed and attempted to march towards the iconic Merdeka Stadium, where independence was declared more than half a century ago. Stampedes followed, and the crowds dispersed into smaller groups and taunted riot police armed with batons, guns and shields.

The opposition-backed rally was the culmination of weeks of intense pressure on Prime Minister Najib Razak's long-ruling coalition to make election laws fairer and more transparent ahead of national polls expected in 2012.

Opposition leaders accuse Najib's ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) of relying on fraud to maintain its 54-year hold on power.

The government insists the current electoral policies are fair.

Badrulamin Bin Bahron is the information director for the chief minister of the opposition-controlled state of Selangor. He said the large number of young people at the rally undermines government claims it holds the support of the nation’s youth.

"They said they have the hearts of the youngsters, but no, the youngsters are with us and now the future of the country is in the hands of these youngsters, young men, young women - Inshala - it will make a change," he said.

Protester Leon Gomez, who marched with his wife and daughter, said organizers had intended the rally to be peaceful, but that the harsh response by the authorities had made that impossible.

"I think they were caught off guard, they didn’t expect such a big crowd and such a big turnout. According to my estimation, the crowd that I was with could be anything from 10 to 15,000 and if that multiplies against the groups I would say we would average 50 to 100,000 and I’m so happy that my country has awakened itself not to be bullied by one single government," said Gomez.

Hundreds of people have been arrested in connection with the Bersih rally.

Other rallies were also held in support of UMNO and the government to counter the Bersih protest. Those rallies, however, were allowed to proceed unhindered by the authorities.