Malaysian police fired tear gas and water cannon at thousands of demonstrators to prevent them from assembling to rally for electoral reform on Saturday. Almost 1,700 people were arrested for defying the government ban in a street protest against Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government.
The police on Sunday said all the detained had been released.
Bersih, the rally organisers, insisted the protests were peaceful in a statement saying: “The only violence witnessed was perpetrated by the police, who unleashed immense amounts of tear gas and chemical laced water on innocent members of the public.”
Some demonstrators sat in front of a police blockade outside of the Tung Shin Hospital. But the authorities eventually fired water into the crowd, scattering the protesters. Some took refuge in a church compound but a group of officers marched in and headed for people wearing yellow t-shirts, the uniform of the rally.
“I don’t know why they are arresting me,” said Muhammad Ismadi bin Haji Abdul Kadir, who works for the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic party, as he was being taken away.
The police had warned the public that they would detain anyone who was participating in or promoting the rally and Kuala Lumpur was placed under a 22-hour lockdown with access to all major roads blocked and some public transport suspended.
Activists and opposition parties argued that was their right to march against the electoral system, which they say is plagued with fraud. This is denied by Mr Najib who accused opposition parties of exploiting the rally to gain political momentum ahead of the next election.
The opposition won an unprecedented number of seats in the last general election following restrictions imposed by the police during a similar demonstration in 2007.
Saturday’s demonstration was billed as a call for free and fair elections. But some had seen it more as a test of Mr Najib, who has built an image as a leader of reform.
Calling for a more transparent electoral system drew Allan Leong, 45, to brave the rain and participate in his first demonstration.
“Malaysia is controlled by one party. It’s not fair. It doesn’t really reflect a true democracy,” he said.
Demonstrators managed to avoid clashing with pro-government groups, who were also out in the hundreds.
The city was eerily quiet, except for the sound of helicopters circling. In the shopping district of Bukit Bintang some shops opened their doors, only to close up a few hours later.
Ms Hao at the Swiss Polo shop, which sells luggage and trinkets to tourists, said she underestimated how much the road blocks would affect her business.
“Malaysia is a very peaceful country to live in. I didn’t think it would get this complicated,” she said.