Malaysia police halt human rights march


Malaysian police halted an annual human-rights march today, arresting about eight people and drawing sharp criticism for being intolerant of dissent.

Some 60 people, including a dozen lawyers, carried banners and leaflets in defiance of both official warnings and the Malaysian Bar Council, which withdrew its support for the march after police crackdowns on other recent demonstrations.

Street protests are illegal in Malaysia unless sanctioned by police, though lawyers involved in today's unauthorized march said they were exercising a constitutional right to free speech.

Police and reporters outnumbered demonstrators in the walk that lasted for just 20 minutes. Police sealed off Merdeka (Independence) Square, scene of unprecedented anti-government protests in the late 1990s, in anticipation of the march.

Demonstrators wore white surgical masks, signifying government gags on free speech. One banner read: "Lawyers for Freedom of Assembly".

Malaysia was rocked by two major street protests last month involving a total of more than 20,000 people, the biggest anti-government demonstrations in a decade, over separate issues of electoral reform and the rights of minority ethnic Indians.

The protest by ethnic Indians, which drew about 10,000 people onto the streets of the capital, was especially unsettling for the government because it focused on the sensitive and potentially explosive issue of race relations.

Malaysia is dominated politically by ethnic Malays, though they make up only a slender majority of the population. Ethnic Chinese, who make up about a third, dominate business. Ethnic Indians, at  about seven per cent, complain they are marginalized

Relations between the three main ethnic groups are often strained, though there has not been a major race riot since 1969.

The government says it is taking a tough stand against street demonstrations because it fears they could lead to violence, but opposition parties say the government is merely using this fear as a pretext to clamp down on free speech and popular dissent.