KUALA LUMPUR // Malaysian authorities sought yesterday to deflect criticism that the government was suppressing dissent after making mass arrests and unleashing tear gas against at least 20,000 demonstrators who marched for electoral reforms.
The political fallout from rare scenes of mayhem in Kuala Lumpur is certain to complicate efforts by prime minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition to bolster its support ahead of general elections that many expect to be held within a year.
International rights groups and Malaysian opposition parties denounced the government's response to the country's largest political rally in four years, which resulted in the arrest of 1,667 people on Saturday. All were freed without immediate charges yesterday.
Amnesty International called it "the worst campaign of repression we've seen in [Malaysia] for years," while Human Rights Watch said it was "a maelstrom of the Malaysian authorities' own making".
Mr Najib's declaration that the rally was unlawful and repeated warnings over the past month for people to avoid it have sparked criticism that his National Front coalition wants to extend its 54-year rule by ensuring that election policies favour the government. The coalition's mandate expires in mid-2013 but many expect national polls by next year.
The rally was organised by civic groups backed by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's three-party alliance. They were urging authorities to clean up voter registration lists, implement stricter measures to curb electoral fraud and allow fair access to the government-linked media for all parties.
Mr Anwar's alliance said a 59-year-old member died from a heart attack during the rally, though police denied opposition allegations that he was hit by tear gas. Mr Anwar himself was hospitalised overnight because of a knee injury after slipping when police tried to break up his group.
The home minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, insisted in a statement yesterday that the demonstrators sought to "create chaos in this country and hoped to be arrested in order to portray the government as cruel".
Mr Hishammuddin praised police, saying they performed their duties with "bravery, fairness and integrity" while confronting what he called provocative actions by protesters. He also claimed authorities over the past week discovered hidden stashes of weapons, homemade firebombs and other dangerous items that protesters might have used.
The minister's statement contrasted sharply with narratives by participants, who said they were marching peacefully to a stadium from various parts of downtown Kuala Lumpur when riot police repeatedly fired tear gas and chemical-laced water and charged at them to make arrests.
Mr Anwar said the crackdown showed the "extent of desperation of brutal action approved by prime minister Najib."
Many demonstrators posted photos on Twitter and Facebook that they claimed were evidence of police brutality, including tear gas canisters apparently lobbed into a hospital compound where protesters sought shelter.
By midday yesterday, more than 58,000 people had joined a new Facebook group calling for Mr Najib's resignation after the crackdown.