The online news portal of TV5
KUALA LUMPUR -- Thousands of protesters gathered in the Malaysian capital Saturday to demand electoral reforms, defying a lockdown of central Kuala Lumpur that left it a maze of razor wire and barricades.
Groups of protesters gathered at various points around the city, intent on challenging an official ban on holding their rally at 2 p.m. (0600 GMT) at Independence Square in the heart of the congested capital.
But a heavy police presence hindered movement into the city center, including about 2,000 armed police deployed around the sealed-off square as a police helicopter buzzed low overhead.
"(The police) shouldn't be here. We just want to march in peace and make our voices heard. We want a fair election," said Nour Yusoff, 29, a kindergarten teacher from eastern Terengganu state who came by bus to join the rally.
The mass rally follows one crushed by police last July, when 1,600 people were arrested, and marks a major test for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has sought to burnish his reform credentials ahead of widely expected polls.
Organizers had planned to gather at Independence Square from 2 p.m. for a sit-in seeking change in a voting system they say is riddled with fraud.
But authorities have declared the square -- where the Malaysian flag was first hoisted in 1957 after independence from Britain -- off-limits, and on Friday obtained a court order banning public gatherings in the area.
Besides the heavy security at the square, several roads around the city were blocked off, and public transport was suspended, forcing protesters to walk for miles. There were no immediate reports of any unrest.
Last July's rally brought tens of thousands to the streets but was met with police tear gas and water cannon.
A resulting backlash prompted Najib to set up a parliamentary panel whose eventual report suggested a range of changes to the electoral system.
But rally organizers Bersih 2.0 and the opposition say far more is needed, including a complete overhaul of a voter roll considered fraudulent and reform of an Election Commission they say is biased in favor of the ruling coalition.
With speculation heating up that Najib could call polls as early as June, they are also are demanding that elections be postponed until their reform demands are fully implemented.
The rally is politically tricky for Najib, who since last year's crackdown has sought to portray himself as a reformer, launching a campaign to repeal authoritarian laws in a bid to create what he called "the greatest democracy."
His ruling coalition has governed Malaysia for more than five decades but made a dismal showing against the opposition in 2008, and Najib is under pressure to improve on that.
Near Independence Square, a crowd of about 4,000 protesters faced off against police and chanted "Bersih, Bersih, Bersih" -- which means "clean" in Malay and has become the rallying cry for clean elections.
Crowds of protesters were dressed in yellow, the color of the Bersih movement.
"The government is being high handed in denying the people the changes we want. We demand free and fair elections," said Zainuddin Tahar, 54, a pensioner from central Malaysia, who wore a yellow shirt.