Tear Gas Erupts as Malaysia Detains Hundreds of Protesters

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Supporters of the "Bersih" (Clean) electoral reform coalition shield themselves from a tear gas canister during clashes with police in downtown Kuala Lumpur July 9, 2011. (Photo: Damir Sagolj - Reuters)

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, has always been a city redolent with tropical blooms. In recent weeks, the country’s opposition has been hoping to add a note of jasmine—of the political, not floral variety—to the air by calling for nationwide electoral reform. On Saturday, however, another scent was added to Kuala Lumpur’s mix: the acrid smell of tear gas fired at protesters in a crackdown by security forces that ended with more than 1,600 people detained. Two political bigwigs, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and one of the heads of the country’s largest Islamic political party, were among those taken into custody.

For weeks now, Bersih, a collective of 60-odd NGOs that goes by the Malay word for “clean,” has been agitating for a change in the way Malaysia conducts politics. The Southeast Asian nation regularly holds elections, and Prime Minister Najib Razak’s governing alliance actually faced an unprecedented onslaught by the political opposition in the last general balloting in 2008. But Bersih contends that Malaysia’s polls are still prone to irregularities, ranging from vote buying to unfair access to the media by the ruling coalition. Malaysia’s next elections are supposed to take place before mid-2013. Despite the opposition’s record gains three years ago, Razak’s National Front coalition and a previous political incarnation have ruled multiethnic Malaysia since it gained independence from the British.  

The government says that Bersih’s decision to hold a protest was illegal because it had not received official permits to congregate. “They had only one objective, to make the international community have a negative perception of Malaysia,” said Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein in a statement released to state news agency Bernama. “The opposition wants Malaysia to be seen as an unstable country, upset the economy and topple the government which has been elected democratically.”

But human-rights groups decried the firing of water cannons and tear-gas at the protesters. “The Malaysian government must immediately release these demonstrators and respect their right to peaceful protest,” said Donna Guest, deputy Asia/Pacific director of Amnesty International. “As a current member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Malaysian government should be setting an example to other nations and promoting human rights. Instead they appear to be suppressing them, in the worst campaign of repression we’ve seen in the country for years.” Human Rights Watch was equally blunt. “This is a maelstrom of the Malaysian authorities’ own making,” said Asia deputy director Phil Robertson in a statement. “The failure of the top levels of the Malaysian government to engage in good faith dialogue with citizens demanding basic electoral reforms is the heart of the matter.”