KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian police fired teargas and water cannons on Saturday as thousands of protesters took to the streets of the capital to demand sweeping electoral reforms ahead of widely expected polls.
Tens of thousands had massed for a march to Merdeka Square (Independence Square) in central Kuala Lumpur despite a lockdown on the area and a court order banning public assemblies there.
But the otherwise peaceful rally was disrupted when hundreds of protesters angry at being denied access to the square trampled razor wire and pushed aside barricades to pour in, where they were met with teargas and chemical-laced water.
The fracas marked the second straight year that police clashed with a pro-democracy rally organised by the election reform pressure group Bersih. A protest march last year was crushed by police and 1,600 people arrested.
Bersih and the political opposition are demanding far-reaching reforms by Prime Minister Najib Razak to end what they say has been decades of manipulation by the ruling coalition aimed at keeping itself in power.
"The message we are sending to Najib is that we must have clean elections!" opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim shouted to a crowd just before the clashes began.
Bersih demands a thorough vetting of the voter roll following revelations of widespread phantom or duplicate voter registrations, a complete overhaul of the national Election Commission, which it accuses of bias, and other reforms.
Last year's harsh response to the rally stung Najib, who moved shortly after to implement a series of political reform steps to shore up voter support.
But he faces fresh criticism after the government imposed the rally restrictions and was accused of alleged harassment of activists in recent days.
"Despite all the talk of 'reform' over the past year, we're seeing a repeat of repressive actions by a government that does not hesitate to use force when it feels its prerogatives are challenged," Human Rights Watch said in response to the clashes at the square.
Police estimated about 20,000 people participated in the rally, while independent Malaysian media put the number at about 80,000.
As white teargas smoke filled the air and drifted down nearby streets, riot police quickly forced back the protesters who had entered the square and regained control.
Dozens of people rounded up by police were seen being held inside a police truck.
Nearby, protesters retaliated by throwing empty water bottles at police.
An AFP reporter saw a police car that had been turned on its side and its windshield smashed, with streaks of blood visible on the pavement.
"We want peace, we want justice for our country. We don't want to make any trouble," said housewife Carmen Yap, 42, her eyes watering and bloodshot due to the teargas.
National police spokesman Ramli Yoosuf confirmed that there were arrests but gave no figures. He defended the police response.
"We fired teargas and water cannons just to contain a specific area after protesters barged into the square. The police had to react," he said.
It was not immediately known how many people may have been injured.
From early Saturday, large crowds, many dressed in the yellow of the Bersih clean-election movement -- Bersih means "clean" in Malay -- gathered at various points around Kuala Lumpur.
They marched towards the square but were thwarted by the heavy police presence.
After last year's rally was crushed, a resulting backlash prompted Najib to set up a panel to explore electoral reforms.
He also launched the repeal of several repressive laws in a bid to create what he has called "the greatest democracy".
But Bersih and the opposition say the elections panel's eventual recommendations fell far short of what was needed, and Najib's overall reform push has met with scepticism.
Speculation is rife that Najib could call polls as early as June, but Bersih is demanding full implementation of reforms first.
The government gave the go-ahead for Saturday's rally, unlike last year when it was banned entirely.
But it ruled out use of Merdeka Square, instead offering several stadium venues. Bersih declined, saying demonstrating at the square was a basic right.
Subject: Clashes as Malaysians rally for clean elections