Malaysian Democracy Activists Prepare for Showdown


By LIZ GOOCH, The New York Times 

Activists demanding changes to Malaysia’s election regulations said they would gather near Independence Square in central Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, after the site was barricaded and a court order was issued banning anyone from entering.

The most recent demonstration held by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, in July, drew tens of thousands of people and was broken up by police officers using tear gas and water cannons, a tactic that was condemned by rights groups. More than 1,600 people were arrested.

The planned Saturday protest, which has received strong support from opposition parties, follows a raft of reforms introduced in recent months by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who promised last year to bolster civil liberties in Malaysia. Those have included moves to eliminate indefinite detention without trial and to allow students to join political parties.

Critics, however, have largely dismissed the measures as insufficient and as an attempt to build support for the government before elections that are widely expected in June.

The Election Commission has agreed to implement some of the recommendations made by a parliamentary committee that was established after the protests last year. But leaders of the activist coalition, also known as Bersih, the Malay word for “clean,” say they doubt those measures will be adequate to ensure that the next election is conducted fairly.

The group is demanding that the current membership of the Election Commission resign, that the voting rolls be purged of fraudulent names and that the election be monitored by international observers.

The authorities have offered Bersih alternative sites for the Saturday protest.

But Ambiga Sreenevasan, a co-chairwoman of Bersih, said that an offer to use Merdeka Stadium had come only Wednesday, too late to change the plans, and that the other sites were far from the city center.

The city announced Thursday that the square would be closed from Friday morning through Sunday morning. Barricades were erected Friday.

The police obtained a court order Friday banning anyone from gathering at the square from Saturday to Tuesday. Anyone who violates the ban will face a fine of 2,000 ringgit, or about $650; six months in jail; or both.

The police said that activists could assemble outside the square, but could be arrested if they encroached on the site, according to a report by The Malaysian Insider, a news Web site.

Ms. Ambiga said activists would gather at various points in the city center on Saturday and make their way toward the square.

“We hope that they will lift the barriers,” Ms. Ambiga told reporters. “We will not break the barriers. We will not breach the order.”

She said she hoped that the authorities would show “good will” and waive the order, saying that Independence Square belonged to the people.

Ms. Ambiga, who predicted the rally could draw as many as 100,000 people, pledged that the protest would be peaceful and that organizers would turn any unruly demonstrators over to the police.

The Malaysian foreign minister, Anifah Aman, said Friday that the government had “no interest in denying Bersih’s right to peaceful protest, to which they are entitled under the law.”

But he said at a news briefing for foreign journalists that the authorities’ first responsibility was to maintain public order and security, and the ability to do so depended on the selection of “an appropriate and a lawful venue.”

“The government has been true to its word in our pursuit of a more open and dynamic democracy by offering alternative venues for Bersih to gather,” he said, “but the simple fact is that no one is above the law.”

Mr. Anifah said that there was still time for organizers to work with the authorities to find an alternative venue.