KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 10 (Reuters) Police in the Malaysian capital used water cannon and fired tear gas shells today to scatter crowds gathering for a banned opposition rally to demand changes to the country's electoral system.
Although hundreds of policemen, including riot police with shields and batons, guarded Kuala Lumpur's landmark Merdeka (Freedom) Square, tens of thousands of people turned out for one of Malaysia's biggest anti-government rallies since 1998.
''Police sprayed water cannons twice to disperse a crowd of about 500 protesters chanting slogans,'' said a Reuters witness who watched the incident outside a historic domed mosque guarded by about 50 riot police, as helicopters hovered overhead.
Nearby, another group of 2,000 protesters, chiefly teenagers wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ''Bersih'', or ''Clean'' in Malay, marched in heavy rain towards the city's colonial-era railway station.
They chanted ''Allahu akbar'' (God is greatest) and ''Reformasi'', a reform demand that was the war chant of 1998 opposition protests, while waving banners reading ''Save Malaysia'' and ''Election Commission, stop your tricks''.
Groups of demonstrators later converged on the palace of Malaysia's king, where opposition leaders handed over a list of election reform demands. Policemen in the crowd said it numbered less than 10,000, but organisers put the figure at 30,000.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said he was happy with the turnout despite the government's condemnation of the protest.
''I think this is a major success in the expression of public sentiment against fraudulent practices in the elections,'' Anwar told Reuters in a telephone interview. ''There is open defiance by Malaysians, which is not normal practice in this country.'' The groundswell of support had invigorated the opposition, he said. ''We will have to persist in this campaign to send a message to the government that people are tired of this kind of fraud.'' Anwar was speaking after he and several opposition colleagues, including Hadi Awang of the hardline Islamist Parti Islam-se Malaysia and Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party, submitted their list to a representative of the ruler.
''THE PEOPLE'S RIGHT'' Mohamadiah Sohod, 33, a government worker from southern Johor state, said he was upset because police had refused to issue a permit for the rally. ''This is the people's right, to assemble and air their grievances,'' he added.
Police detained about a dozen protesters and effectively shut down the city centre, throwing up barricades on main roads to halt cars and turn away protesters, witnesses said.
''We will not hesitate to take action against those who defied our orders,'' state news agency Bernama quoted city police chief Zul Hasnan Najib as saying before the demonstration began.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said on Friday the government would not tolerate street protests. ''They are challenging the patience of the people who want the country to be peaceful and stable,'' he said.
Previous protests of similar scale were anti-government rallies led by Anwar in 1998 before his arrest and jailing.
The rally was organised by Bersih, a loose coalition of 26 opposition parties and non-government groups that is pushing for reforms to the electoral process it says favours the ruling coalition.
Abdullah won a record victory in a 2004 election, and is widely expected to call snap polls in early 2008.
Two people were seriously injured in September when police opened fire to disperse rioters at a Bersih rally in the northeastern state of Terengganu.
REUTERS SZ HS1626