KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — At least 20,000 Malaysians defied government warnings by marching for electoral reforms Saturday, as police fired tear gas and detained more than 1,600 in the country's biggest political rally in four years.
The crackdown on the opposition-backed demonstration in Malaysia's main city, Kuala Lumpur, triggered criticism that Prime Minister Najib Razak's long-ruling coalition was unwilling to allow public dissent or make election laws fairer ahead of national polls widely expected by mid-2012.
Najib's administration declared the rally illegal and warned people repeatedly over the past month to avoid it. Officials insisted it was simply an opposition scheme to spark chaos and stir anti-government sentiment, while activists accused authorities of being afraid of a protest that could undermine their authority.
Authorities blocked roads, shut rail stations and deployed trucks with water cannons near the Independence Stadium in downtown Kuala Lumpur where activists sought to gather. More than 200 activists had been arrested over the past two weeks for promoting the rally.
The large number of demonstrators who showed up despite the threat of arrests and the disruptions in transport links bolstered claims by activists that the government had misjudged public opinion by not allowing what they insisted would have been a peaceful rally.
The crackdown "stirred a sense of outrage against the exhibition of raw power by our government," said Ambiga Sreenavasan, head of the Bersih coalition of civic groups that organized the rally.
"What is the necessity for a show of might against right? No matter what, right will always prevail," she said.
Police said in a statement that they detained 1,667 people Saturday in a clampdown called "Operation Erase Bersih." Those arrested included several senior opposition officials. Some were released after several hours, with police indicating that most would not be held overnight.
Thousands tried to reach the stadium from various parts of Kuala Lumpur, chanting "Long live the people" and carrying yellow balloons and flowers as they marched.
Police fired numerous rounds of tear gas and chemical-laced water in repeated attempts to disperse the crowds, causing demonstrators to scatter into nearby buildings and alleys before they regrouped. Police helicopters flew overhead as a brief downpour failed to deter the protesters.
Witnesses said riot police armed with batons charged at some protesters and dragged them into trucks. Some were seen bleeding, but police could not confirm any injuries.
Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's top opposition figure, was being treated at a hospital for a "minor injury" he said he received when his group was hit by tear gas. The Malaysiakini news website said he had a knee injury.
"We were attacked from both corners but what was horrifying is that the police shot directly at the protesters, some of them clearly aimed at me personally, so my security assistants had to cover me and one was badly injured because the canister was shot direct, he is badly injured," Anwar told Associated Press Television News. "This is a simple portrayal of the extent of desperation of brutal action approved by the Prime Minister Najib."
The demonstrators dispersed after a five-hour standoff with police. Only several hundred reached the stadium.
Prime Minister Najib insisted Saturday the protesters only represent a minority, and that most Malaysians support his administration.
"If there are people who want to hold the illegal rally, there are even more who are against their plan," the prime minister was quoted as saying by the national news agency, Bernama.
Organizers said 50,000 took part in the rally, but police claimed there were only up to 6,000. Other observers and participants said the total was between 20,000 and 30,000, noting that it was highly unlikely that police could have arrested a quarter of the demonstrators. An accurate count was impossible because they were scattered in various areas.
The rally has galvanized the opposition and has been credited for a surge in political awareness among the public in recent weeks.
Opposition leaders accuse Najib's National Front coalition of relying on fraud to preserve its 54-year grip on power, which has been eroded in recent years amid mounting complaints about corruption and racial discrimination. The government insists the current electoral policies are evenhanded.
The activists' demands include an overhaul of voter registration lists, tougher measures to curb fraud and fairer opportunities for opposition politicians to campaign in government-linked media. The National Front's mandate expires in mid-2013 but many analysts expect elections to be called by next year.
Supporters of the Bersih coalition were also planning solidarity marches over the weekend in foreign cities, including in Australia, Britain, France, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and the United States.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. has been communicating to Malaysia the importance of respecting human rights, including freedom of expression and assembly.
"We consider it incumbent on all sides to refrain from violence," she told a news conference Friday.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.