Kuala Lumpur, Nov 10: Malaysian police stepped up security in the capital today, effectively shutting down the city centre to try to foil a banned opposition rally demanding changes to the electoral system, witnesses said.
Hundreds of policemen, including riot police backed by water cannon, guarded the landmark Merdeka (Freedom) Square, where tens of thousands of protesters had intended to gather in one of the biggest anti-government rallies since 1998.
''We will not hesitate to take action against those who defied our orders,'' news agency Bernama today quoted Kuala Lumpur police chief Zul Hasnan Najib as saying. The police have refused to grant a permit for the rally.
Police mounted roadblocks along the main roads leading to the city centre and placed barricades near the square, checking on cars and turning away protesters, witnesses said.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who oversees the police, said yesterday the government would not tolerate street demonstrations.
''They are challenging the patience of the people who want the country to be peaceful and stable. That is what they are challenging, not me,'' he said at his ruling party meeting. The opposition parties and right groups have said they would defy the police ban.
The rally, expected to be led by opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, could be one of the biggest in the country since unprecedented anti-government protests in 1998 that led to his arrest and jailing.
It is being organised by Bersih (Clean), a loose coalition of 26 opposition parties and non-governmental organisations demanding reforms in the electoral process that they say heavily favours Abdullah's ruling coalition.
Abdullah, who won a record victory in a 2004 election, is expected to call snap polls in early 2008.
In September, police opened fire to disperse rioters at a Bersih rally in the northeastern state of Terengganu, seriously injuring two people.
Today's rally was due to culminate in a march to the nearby National Palace to present a written appeal to the King calling for electoral reform, Anwar's Keadilan party said.
''Our appeals to the government for reforms of the electoral system have fallen on deaf ears and as such it has abdicated its responsibility to safeguard the democratic institutions of the nation,'' Anwar told reporters on Thursday.