KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Government officials on Sunday defended their use of violence the day before to quell demonstrations in the capital.
Police beat protesters, used water cannons, and fired tear gas directly at protesters that were calling for electoral reform.
The police announced via Facebook that 1,667 people had been arrested, including 151 women and 16 children.
Reports vary widely regarding how many people participated in the rally. Media reported that 20,000 people came out to protest, while the event organizer, the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, or Bersih 2.0, put the number at around 50,000 people. Police reported that between 5,000 and 6,000 were in the streets.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak told AFP on Sunday that the crackdown was justified. "[The protesters] said they wanted to hold a peaceful rally. If the police had not monitored it, it would not have been peaceful," he said.
Defense Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that the protesters were giving Malaysia a chaotic and unstable appearance.
"They just want to tarnish the image of the country and deny what had been done by Prime Minister [Datuk Seri Najib Tun Raza] in transforming the country in all aspects," the minister told reporters Sunday, according to state-run Bernama news agency.
One of the protesters, who identified himself as Mr. Dai, came with his family to support the Bersih campaign because he is dissatisfied with the current electoral system.
“There are too many phantom voters and postal votes. Somehow, in the areas where the ruling party should have lost, there were many such votes,” he said.
Mr. Dai and his relative were near Tung Shin Hospital when police fired tear gas inside at protesters gathered in the compound. Mr. Dai condemned the incident, which endangered innocent patients. Miss Dai said she saw some demonstrators flee into the hospital and police followed firing tear gas.
On the other hand, Tung Shin Hospital board of directors chairman Ng Beh Tong told Bernama that there was no tear gas canister found in the compound, neither did the police fire water canons in the direction of the hospital. The Malaysia police has denied the allegations of protesters that FRU fired tear gas and spray water cannons into the hospital compound.
Human rights groups have condemned the state’s heavy-handed reaction to the protests.
Amnesty International criticized the police’s handling of the protests, calling it “the worst campaign of repression we’ve seen in the country for years.”
Human Rights Watch likewise condemned the government’s crackdown on an electoral reform group. “[It] shows utter disregard both for free expression and for the democratic process. Governments that elected Malaysia to a second term on the United Nations Human Rights Council might feel duped," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW, said in a statement.
Bersih 2.0, an umbrella group comprised of 62 nongovernmental organizations, made eight demands for electoral reform including calling for a clean electoral roll that reflects the voting population, a reformed postal ballot, the use of indelible ink, which will prevent voter fraud, a minimum of 21 campaign days, free and fair access to media, stronger public institutions, an end to corruption, and an end to dirty politics.
Bersih means “clean” in Malay and 2.0 refers to the fact that this year’s July 9 rally was a follow-up to a 2007 Bersih rally, which had met a similar end to Saturday’s protest.
With additional reporting by Shannon Liao and June Kellum
Article was updated July 11, at 23:00 MYT