Malaysian police used batons and water cannons yesterday to disperse hundreds of anti-government protesters in the capital, arresting around a dozen activists and beating several.
Some 200 people, including opposition parties, non-government organizations and student groups gathered in front of Kuala Lumpur's iconic Petronas Twin Towers in the latest of a series of rallies against steep fuel price rises.
Chanting "Protest!" and carrying banners saying "Cronies get rich while workers are oppressed," they also slammed a decision last week to raise electricity tariffs, the first hike in nearly a decade.
Tenaga Nasional Bhd, Malaysia's biggest power producer, last week won government approval to lift electricity prices by an average 12 percent, beginning on Thursday, to pare debt, three months after Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi boosted retail gasoline and diesel prices to trim fuel subsidies amid higher oil prices.
Malaysia's government had kept electricity prices unchanged since 1997 to cap costs at companies after the economy went into its worst recession in more than four decades in 1998.
Some 100 riot police wielding batons and rifles stood guard in front of the towers, alongside several water cannon trucks, as helicopters flew overhead.
"Everybody is suffering from the fuel hike. Now electricity prices are also up. These two hikes will hit us hard, whether our pay is large or small," Hatta Ramli from the opposition Pan-Malaysia Islamic (PAS) party told the crowd.
"This price increase must be dropped, otherwise we will suffer even more," said Democratic Action Party (DAP) leader Ronnie Liu.
Police warned the crowds to disperse but ugly scenes erupted when the demonstrators were slow to act.
They used a water cannon on the demonstrators, and proceeded to push and beat up stragglers as shocked shoppers and tourists looked on. Several protestors were seen being kicked by police before being arrested.
Liu, PAS youth chief Salahuddin Ayub, and 16 other activists were arrested, said the opposition newspaper Harakah. Police were not immediately available to confirm the figures.
In March, police sprayed water to disperse more than 500 people who marched on the streets near the Petronas Towers to protest against the fuel increase.
Malaysia's inflation rate accelerated to a seven-year high of 4.8 percent in March because transportation costs climbed on costlier diesel and gasoline.
The government raised retail gasoline and diesel prices by as much as 23 percent on Feb. 28, the fifth increase since May 2004, to trim fuel subsidies as global oil prices rose. That's caused food prices, taxi fares and other transport costs to increase, raising concerns about inflation.
The government has said that fuel subsidies will eventually be scrapped to channel funds towards building schools and rural infrastructure.
Fuel prices in Malaysia are cheap compared to neighboring nations, but due to the lack of public transportation, people remain dependent on their vehicles.