What began as a peaceful demonstration to demand electoral reforms soon degenerated into violence after Malaysian police and protesters clashed in the capital Kuala Lumpur over the weekend, prompting widespread allegations of police brutality and excessive force. Yet footage of the event has sparked questions as to what role demonstrators played in the unrest.
Organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, also known as Bersih
(‘Bersih’ means ‘clean’ in Malay), Saturday’s protest was the third such demonstration to demand electoral reforms since 2007, and perhaps the largest the country has seen in about a decade. Malaysian President Najib Razak is widely expected to hold national elections in June
. According to police, as many as 40,000 to 50,000 people flooded the capital to participate in the rally, whereas event organisers estimated the number significantly higher at 250,000.
Dressed in bright yellow headbands or T-shirts now emblematic of the Bersih movement, many of the protesters marched towards Kuala Lumpur’s historic Independence Square, which police had reportedly cordoned off with barbwire. As they closed in on the landmark, police fired teargas and water cannons at the crowds, forcing them to disperse.
Protesters disperse after being teargased by Malaysian police. Video posted on YouTube by Oberver1.
In a separate incident, a police car was filmed as it was attacked driving through crowds of people, before crashing into a wall. Once at a standstill, several demonstrators swarmed around the vehicle and began to trash it.
Video of the police car being attacked, posted to YouTube by Malaysia's police.
Around 471 people were arrested during the demonstrations.
Human Rights Watch
has slammed Saturday’s police response as “excessive force”, and called upon Malaysia’s government to launch an impartial investigation into allegations of abuse. According to reports, the country’s minister of home affairs, Hishammuddin Hussein, waved off allegations of brutality, praising the police for what he called their “professionalism and the restraint”.