KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian police pledged Monday to investigate violence at a rally supporting free elections that spiraled out of control when protesters broke through barricades in central Kuala Lumpur.
The inspector general of police, Ismail Omar, quoted by The Star newspaper, said, “We acted with full restraint for several hours and only took action to disperse the crowds after the barricades were breached.”
He added, “We take all these complaints seriously and will thoroughly investigate.”
Police fired tear gas and water cannons at thousands of demonstrators who had gathered in the streets around Independence Square, in one of the largest protests in Malaysia in years.
Protesters, photographers and journalists have complained that they were beaten by police officers during the rally and rights groups have condemned the authorities’ response as excessive.
More than 500 people were arrested during the demonstration, which was organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, a group of 84 organizations calling for major reforms to the country’s election system. Police have since released all those arrested.
Although the government has pledged to introduce reforms to the election system, the group, known as Bersih — which means “clean” in Malay — argues that these measures will not be enough to ensure that the next polls, widely expected to be held in June, are conducted fairly.
Police estimated that 40,000 to 50,000 people attended the protest Saturday, but Bersih organizers put the number at 250,000.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said late Sunday that police would investigate any excessive action taken against members of the public, including media personnel, according to a report by Bernama, the national news agency.
He said police would release video footage of the rally to prevent people from exploiting incidents to try to win support and influence the public, the report said.
“It’s important for the police to show what actually happened,” Najib was quoted as saying. “Police will not cover up anything, including if there was misconduct on the part of their own personnel.”
The rally was peaceful until a group of protesters broke through the barriers, prompting police to fire tear gas and water cannons.
Protesters threw shoes, bottles, and chairs while trying to break through the barricades, Bloomberg News reported. Other news reports said demonstrators overturned a police car.