KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s government warned opposition parties and civil-rights activists on Friday against holding any more street protests, saying the government and police would not allow the country to slide into anarchy.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak issued the warning after police in the capital used tear gas and water cannon to break up a rally of about 10,000 people demanding electoral reform last weekend. It was the largest street protest in a decade.
“Whatever they want to do in this country must be consistent with the principle of the rule of law, otherwise we will slip into anarchy and I will not allow that to happen,” Najib told reporters when asked about criticisms of the crackdown.
Malaysia bans public assemblies of more than five people without a police permit. In practice, rallies are allowed when they focus on international issues, such as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but anti-government protests are rarely permitted.
Last Saturday’s crackdown drew criticism from international human-rights monitor Human Rights Watch, local civil-liberties groups and a European diplomat who said Malaysia was living under a virtual state of emergency.
Organisers of the rally, a coalition of opposition parties and civil-liberties groups campaigning for reform of the electoral system, said they planned to hold further protests.
Najib said the government feared illegal assemblies could take on racial overtones and spin out of control.
Malaysia is a multiracial country where Muslim ethnic Malays make up about 60 percent of the population, with ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian communities making up most of the remainder. It has a history of racial tensions but there has been no serious racial or religious riot since 1969.
“We do not want anything to deteriorate into becoming uncontrollable or racially natured,” Najib said.
Malaysian human rights group Suaram, part of the coalition demanding electoral reform, said government fears were unfounded.
“The rally on Saturday was very peaceful,” said Suaram executive director Yap Swee Seng.
“It only became disorder because of police action, using tear gas and water cannon. There’s no ground for the police not to issue a permit for the rally. As long as the rallies are peaceful, there’s no ground for the government to get worried.”