Malaysia deploys police to stop fuel protest march

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Malaysia deployed hundreds of police to stop an opposition rally against fuel price rises that has stoked public anger and handed a political weapon to Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi's rivals.

Protests have so far been small and scattered, but on Friday, after Muslim prayers, the opposition hopes to draw 20,000 people in a march from a mosque in a poor part of Kuala Lumpur to the iconic Petronas Towers in the city centre to underline anger against the state energy giant.

Malaysia joined India, Indonesia, Taiwan and Sri Lanka in raising pump prices last week, provoking a public outcry in the oil producing country. Soaring global fuel costs have triggered strikes by truckers from Thailand to Spain.

Friday's protest is seen as a major political test for Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, already fighting for his political survival after the governing coalition's dismal electoral performance in March.

About 2,000 police were deployed around the cream-coloured Kampung Baru mosque and the twin towers, the Star news alert service said. Several red-shirted members of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which has called the protest, stood outside the mosque as the prayers began.

Police have urged people not to join the rally, deemed illegal because no permit has been issued, and warned they would arrest protest leaders.

“We are not sure how many protesters will turn up and which routes they will take. But we are taking all precautionary measures,” a police spokesman told Reuters.

There are tight restrictions on public gatherings in Malaysia, but the opposition has said it will go ahead anyway.

“The people are angry. They say the fuel price is very high so they want to say something,” said Safarizal Saleh, a leader of the youth wing of the PAS.

Petrol prices were raised by 41% and diesel 63% in line with a global surge in oil prices, which touched a record $139 a barrel last month. The measure will drive Malaysia's inflation to a 10-year high of 4.2% in 2008.

“Chief ministers and ministers' have huge pay packets and the government pays for their petrol. So they do not understand the sufferings of the rural folk,” Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of PAS and chief minister of the northeastern state of Kelantan, said.

The government says it will save 13.7 billion ringgit ($4.2 billion) as part of a broad overhaul of its heavily subsided energy pricing system.

Trying to assuage public anger, Prime Minister Abdullah has said there will not be any more fuel increases this year and announced a cut in the allowances of ministers as part of measures to curb government costs.

But critics, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, have rejected the measures as too little and questioned why Malaysia, the largest net oil exporter in Asia, should face the fuel hike when the country earns 250 million ringgit ($76.76 million) a year in revenue for every $1 rise in crude prices.

“Although Petronas is estimated to have earned 2 trillion ringgit over the last 34 years ... its accounts are not accessible to (the) public nor by the people's elected representative in Parliament,” said Waytha Moorthy, chairman of HINDRAF, a group campaigning for the rights of ethnic Indians which is supporting the fuel protests.

Petronas posted a record profit of $12.9 billion for the year ended March 31 2007, helped by a boom in crude oil prices. The state oil firm is expected to release its 2008 earnings at the end of June.

On top of higher fuel costs, the government, like its counterparts in the region, is also battling the spiraling cost of food by trying to lock in supplies of rice.

Abdullah was due to launch a program later on Friday in Kelantan to step up rice production. Malaysia meets nearly 70% of its rice demand from domestic production. (Reuters)

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