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”.

“The police’s heavy-handed response made protesters feel as if they were being attacked, which was maybe why the situation spiralled out of control”

Fahmi Fadzil participated in the protest in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. He works for opposition MP Nunul Izzah Anwar, the daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
At the start of the day, everything was quite calm. The police almost seemed like they had been sent from a public relations department. They bade you good morning and smiled when they greeted you. Then, at around 3pm, it seemed almost as if we were faced with a completely different police force. It was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The level of aggression was not surprising, it was shocking.
I was about 200 or 300 metres away from the frontline near Independence Square when the teargas was fired. I was in an area that was packed with other protesters, and it soon became clear that the police were not holding their ground at the square, but entering into the crowds. I was at a store with friends buying water when we were hit by the teargas. It starts as a smell and then, if you’ve been exposed for a while, you can feel it filling your lungs. It’s quite potent. I wasn’t hit by a water cannon, but I saw them. They were firing them indiscriminately, even in touristic areas.
I think the police’s heavy-handed response made protesters feel as if they were being attacked, which could explain why the situation spiralled out of control on both sides. There is a video of demonstrators attacking a lone police car as it drives through a crowd of people before smashing into a wall, which took place after the police had attempted to break up the demonstration. While I don’t condone any violence on behalf of the protesters, I also think the police should be asking themselves why this vehicle entered such a dense area without any backup. The police had aerial support, and they could have alerted the driver or other police officers that he was going to need reinforcement. It makes me ask, what was that car doing there alone in the first place? I think it was done to provoke the protesters.
This is the third mass protest Bersih has organised since 2007 to demand electoral reforms. This time the calls were repeated to pressure the election commission to fulfil a number of promised reforms ahead of the upcoming general elections. One of the key demands was that the chairman and deputy chairman of the election commission resign, because they are card-carrying members of the United Malays National Organisation, which is one of the parties that make up the ruling coalition. It’s a problem of perception. If you are both a member of the ruling party and the election commission then it’s difficult for people to see you as being impartial, and ultimately, the public loses its confidence in the system. I personally feel as though the election commission is not serious about its commitment to electoral reform. Voters are also very concerned about the level of corruption within the ruling coalition as well as basic issues such as inflation, the rising cost of living and stagnant wages.
A police car spins out of control after being attacked by protesters, crashing into a wall. Video posted on YouTube by avchin1968.