Malaysian opposition backs off from street rally threat

KUALA LUMPUR Tue Jul 5, 2011 4:12pm IST

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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - A Malaysian electoral reform group backed down on Tuesday from a threat to hold a big anti-government street rally this weekend, but analysts said Prime Minister Najib Razak faces increasing pressure to improve transparency of the voting process.

The group, which is backed by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim's three-party opposition coalition, had promised to bring tens of thousands onto the streets on Saturday in what could have been Malaysia's biggest protest since 1998 when Anwar's sacking triggered violent demonstrations.

The Bersih (Clean) coalition said that after an audience with the king, it had decided to hold the weekend march in a stadium in the capital instead, allaying government fears of chaotic street rallies.

The meeting with the king, a respected constitutional figurehead, comes after threats of a government crackdown against the rally's organisers and an offer by Najib to allow the gathering to be held in a stadium.

"We are very grateful for the (audience with the king) and will accept the government offer," Ambiga Sreenevasan, the coalition's head, was quoted as saying by online news website Malaysiakini (www.malaysiakini.com).

"Therefore, the rally on the street will not take place."

Rights groups say police have arrested more than 100 opposition party members and other Bersih supporters in the last two weeks in an attempt to stop the rally.

Most have been released after questioning, but 24 members of a minor opposition party were charged in court on Monday for associating with Bersih, which the government has declared an unlawful group.

"By agreeing to compromise and allow Bersih to gather in an indoor stadium, Najib has opened a safety valve for dissent, but this still doesn't totally take the pressure off him," said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the independent polling group Merdeka Center.

"If there is no progress on the demands made by Bersih then the possibility of street protests could emerge again in the months ahead."

Bersih is demanding reforms following longstanding opposition accusations that the election commission is partial towards the ruling coalition. The commission denies that.

Analysts say the rally is also an attempt by the opposition to increase pressure on Najib ahead of a general election which is not due until 2013 but which could take place late this year.

Bersih held a rally in November 2007 of tens of thousands of protesters demanding reforms, which analysts said galvanized support for the opposition ahead of record gains in a 2008 general election.

Najib took office in 2009 pledging political and economic change to rebuild support and woo investments. But some investors have been disappointed with the slow pace of change.

(Editing by Liau Y-Sing)

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