Malaysia braced for a confrontation Saturday between authorities and thousands of protesters vowing to face down curbs on a rally demanding wholesale electoral reforms.
The mass rally follows one crushed by police last July, when 1,600 people were arrested, and marks a major test for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has sought to burnish his reform credentials ahead of widely expected polls.
Organisers have announced plans to gather at Independence Square in the heart of the capital Kuala Lumpur from 2:00 pm (0600 GMT) Saturday for a sit-in seeking change in a system they say is riddled with fraud.
But authorities have declared the square -- where the Malaysian flag was first hoisted in 1957 after independence from Britain -- off-limits, and on Friday obtained a court order banning public gatherings in the area.
Authorities sealed off the area Friday and said roads leading to it would be inaccessible to the public until Sunday.
Protesters have said they will march to the barricades and demand access but vowed to remain peaceful.
"We will march to the barrier," said Ambiga Sreenivasan, chairwoman of organisers Bersih 2.0. "We will not break the barriers."
Last July's rally for clean elections -- "bersih" means "clean" in Malay -- brought tens of thousands to the streets of the capital, prompting a police crackdown with tear gas and water cannon.
A resulting backlash prompted Najib to set up a parliamentary panel whose eventual report suggested a range of changes to the electoral system.
But Bersih and the opposition say far more is needed, including a complete overhaul of a voter roll considered fraudulent and reform of an Election Commission they say is biased in favour of the ruling coalition.
The rally is a direct challenge to Najib, who since last year's crackdown has launched a campaign to repeal authoritarian laws in a bid to create what he called "the greatest democracy."
His ruling coalition has governed Malaysia for more than five decades but made a dismal showing against the opposition in 2008, and Najib is under pressure to improve on that.
Elections are not due until next year but speculation is rife that Najib could call them as early as June.
"Last July, the government thought they could win people over by their tough actions but they realised that quashing protests was a bad judgement call," political analyst Shahruddin Badarudin told AFP.
"So this year they are being much more savvy in trying to stop them."
Source: AFP Asian Edition