Malaysian police said 222 people were arrested during the rally called to demand “fair rules” in national elections. Lawyers said of those held most were expected to be released soon after having their details recorded, but it was not immediately clear if they would be charged later with any offence.
Officials said three demonstrators and 20 police officers were injured.
At least 25,000 demonstrators swamped Malaysia’s capital city, hoping to pressure prime minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition – which has held power for nearly 55 years – to overhaul electoral policies before elections that could be held as early as June.
Authorities insist the elections will be free and fair, rejecting activists’ claims that the election commission is biased and that voter registration lists have been packed with fake names.
Demonstrators, some wearing yellow T-shirts, waving banners and chanting slogans, poured into Kuala Lumpur’s city centre, massing near a public square that police had sealed off with barbed wire and barricades.
“I’m here because I’m a Malaysian and I love my country,” said information technology manager Burrd Lim.
“There’s no election that’s perfect, but I want one that’s fair enough.”
Authorities had refused to allow an opposition-backed pressure group that organised the rally to use Independence Square, a nationally renowned venue that hosts parades and patriotic celebrations.
The demonstration remained peaceful for several hours, prompting organisers to declare it a success and to ask people to head home. But when a small group appeared to suddenly breach the police barriers, authorities began firing tear gas and water laced with stinging chemicals at the crowd.
Baton-wielding police backed by lorries mounted with water cannon sporadically fired tear gas at some demonstrators for at least an hour before much of the crowd was dispersed. People fled into streets and nearby shops, leaving shoes, bottles and other belongings scattered on the ground.
A police spokesman said that a protester snatched a pistol from one of its officers during the chaos, though the weapon was later recovered, while others destroyed public property.
Video footage by independent news website Malaysiakini showed demonstrators overturning a police car after it allegedly struck two people.
Home minister Hishammuddin Hussein said 20 policemen and three demonstrators received treatment for unspecified injuries.
He insisted that police acted “with utmost restraint,” but opposition leaders and rights groups said the use of tear gas was unjustified.
“By launching a crackdown on peaceful protesters on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian government is once again showing its contempt for its people’s basic rights and freedoms,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia.
Federal police spokesman Rasdi Ramli estimated there were about 25,000 demonstrators, but many witnesses and some Malaysian news organisations said there were far more. Malaysiakini said there were 100,000, while the Sun newspaper estimated 80,000.
“We all want change today,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, one of the demonstration’s leaders.
The rally’s organisers have also sought longer election campaigning periods and changes to ensure citizens living abroad are able to vote, as well as international observers for the polls and fairer access for all political parties to the government-linked media.
But despite the large turnout for yesterday’s demonstration, there was no indication that prime minister Najib’s National Front coalition would agree to major changes to satisfy the activists.
“If elections are not clean, not fair, show the evidence,” Najib was quoted as saying by the national news agency, Bernama, yesterday. “We do not want to be elected through cheating. We are a government chosen by the people. The majority of the people chose us because they know we are better” than the opposition.
After about 20,000 demonstrators staged a similar rally that was also dispersed by tear gas last July, authorities established a panel to study electoral regulations and agreed for voters to have their fingers stained with indelible ink while casting ballots, to prevent multiple voting.
But activists say those decisions fall short of what’s needed. Hundreds of Malaysians living abroad and rights activists in cities such as Hong Kong, Auckland and Perth also staged demonstrations yesterday to show solidarity with those in Kuala Lumpur.
Speculation has intensified that Najib might dissolve parliament next month and seek a new mandate in June, even though elections do not need to be held until mid-2013.
The National Front, which has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, suffered its worst performance in 2008 elections, when it lost more than a third of parliament’s seats amid public complaints about corruption and racial discrimination.