KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian riot police fired tear gas and water cannons Saturday in clashes with several thousand anti-government demonstrators who gathered to protest a long-standing law allowing detention without trial, raising the stakes in a long-running struggle for political power in the country.
The law – known as the Internal Security Act – enables Malaysian authorities to detain indefinitely persons they consider to be security risks. In the past, al-Qaeda linked terrorists have been held under the provision. But opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and human rights activists say the law is also used to stifle dissent in Malaysia, where the National Front coalition has ruled the country without interruption since independence from Britain in 1957. Last year, the law was used to detain a blogger, a journalist and members of a Hindu rights activist group.
As many as 10,000 protesters converged in the center of Malaysia’s main city just after 2 pm on Saturday, and prepared to march toward the national palace where they intended to hand in a petition to the country’s constitutional monarch to appeal the security law. Chants of “Reformasi” — the Malaysian term for political reform — echoed around the narrow streets in downtown Kuala Lumpur as police fired tear gas and chemical-laced water to break up the protesters
Police used batons to charge into groups of demonstrators, scuffling with many of them. Some protesters took refuge in a nearby department store to evade arrest, while other businesses pulled down their shutters as concerns about violence grew.
Witnesses saw police dragging detainees into waiting vans, sometimes kicking and screaming. Inspector General of Police Musa Haji Hassan said in a statement that police arrested 310 protesters because the rally hadn’t been granted a permit. “Because of their defiance, police were left not no choice but to disperse them by spraying tear gas and throwing water at the demonstrators,” Mr. Musa said.
“The police are really brutal,” Mr. Anwar, the opposition leader, told reporters attending the protest, stressing that the crackdown underscored the government’s unwillingness to tolerate any dissent. Prime Minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, said the protesters had been warned not to rally, local media reported, and said he had received many complaints about traffic disruptions in the area. He said he would leave it to the police to determine what to do with the people detained during the protest.
James Chin, a political science professor at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, said the protest was intended to “send a strong signal to the rest of the world that nothing has changed in Malaysia” in years.
Indeed, the political tension pervading the country seems in many ways to be a retread of what happened a