KUALA LUMPUR - Police in the Malaysian capital used water cannon and fired tear gas shells on Saturday to scatter crowds gathering for a banned opposition rally to demand changes to the country's electoral system.
Malaysian riot police surround demonstrators during a protest in Kuala Lumpur November 10, 2007. [Agencies]
Although hundreds of policemen, including riot police with shields and batons, guarded Kuala Lumpur's landmark Merdeka (Freedom) Square, tens of thousands of people turned out for one of Malaysia's biggest rallies since 1998.
"Police sprayed water cannons twice to disperse a crowd of about 500 protesters chanting slogans," said a Reuters witness who watched the incident outside a historic domed mosque guarded by about 50 riot police, as helicopters hovered overhead.
Nearby, another group of 2,000 protesters, chiefly teenagers wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Bersih", or "Clean" in Malay, marched in heavy rain towards the city's colonial-era railway station.
They chanted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) and "Reformasi", a reform demand that was the war chant of 1998 opposition protests, while waving banners reading "Save Malaysia" and "Election Commission, stop your tricks".
Groups of demonstrators later converged on the palace of Malaysia's king, where opposition leaders handed over a list of election reform demands. Policemen in the crowd said it numbered less than 10,000, but organisers put the figure at 30,000.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he was happy with the turnout despite the government's condemnation of the protest.
"I think this is a major success in the expression of public sentiment against fraudulent practices in the elections," Anwar told Reuters in a telephone interview. "There is open defiance by Malaysians, which is not normal practice in this country."
The groundswell of support had invigorated the opposition, he said. "We will have to persist in this campaign to send a message to the government that people are tired of this kind of fraud."
Anwar was speaking after he and several opposition colleagues, including Hadi Awang of the hardline Islamist Parti Islam-se Malaysia and Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party, submitted their list to a representative of the ruler.