Protest greet new year in KL

KUALA LUMPUR - Thousands of demonstrators clad in black flooded a square in the centre of the Malaysian capital late on Tuesday to protest against increases in petrol and other prices, putting pressure on a government struggling to reduce debt.

Demonstrators gathered at Kuala Lumpur's Independence Square in defiance of police warnings not to rally and caused a New Year's Eve performance held there by the city to be cut short.

The protest ended peacefully after midnight. Organisers said some 15,000 people attended the rally, while police put the number at 5,000.

Wearing black T-shirts and Guy Fawkes masks - a symbol of anti-establishment defiance worldwide - the protesters carried posters that read "Drop prices" and "Defending our rights", and chanted "Long live the people".

"Today is a signal. We hope the government realises that the people are angry and will listen to our demands - reduce the cost of living for the people," Mr Bukhairy Sofian, chairman of youth group Student Solidarity Movement Malaysia, said after giving a speech, together with other activists and opposition politicians.

"There is too much corruption," he said, adding that there could be more protests.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose Barisan Nasional coalition won May elections with its worst showing yet in its 56-year rule, has been struggling to reduce the debt of South-east Asia's third-largest economy.

In his New Year message, Datuk Seri Najib said cutting subsidies on essentials, such as petrol and sugar, which cost the government billions of dollars, and raising other prices were "necessary".

Petrol prices rose 10.5 per cent when the government cut fuel subsidies for the first time since 2010 in September last year, while electricity tariffs have been increased by some 15 per cent.

The authorities had urged people not to gather, alleging that protesters would cause unrest, but hundreds of police on stand-by allowed them to rally.

Elsewhere in the Klang Valley, including Kuala Lumpur City Centre, the parties went on smoothly.

In Putrajaya, about half a million people gathered to usher in the New Year, complete with a 10-minute fireworks display at the stroke of midnight.