(Adds police comment on arrests)
By Liau Y-Sing
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Malaysian police used water cannon and tear gas on Saturday to break up an anti-government protest by ethnic Indians carrying roses to symbolise a peaceful demand for justice.
With the Malaysian government concerned about street protests in the run-up to early general elections on March 8, around 100 policemen, including riot police with helmets and shields, turned out to disperse a gathering of about 300 men, women and children.
Nine protesters were arrested, state-run Bernama news agency quoted a police spokesman as saying. The rally’s organiser had earlier said 20 were arrested.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s ruling coalition is widely expected to retain power at the polls, although with a reduced majority, but many Indians accuse his multi-racial coalition, dominated by ethnic Malays, of racial discrimination.
The Hindu Rights Action Force (Hinraf) first announced the protest in January as a way to press its demand for the release of five of its leaders jailed under tough internal security laws.
The Malaysian government detained the men without trial soon after more than 10,000 ethnic Indians marched in the capital last November to complain about a lack of job and education opportunities, in response to a call from the group.
"I want the five to be released," said Parvathy Raman, a 30-year-old accounts executive from Kuala Lumpur, who joined the protest. "I want the government to hear our problems. Everyone knows there is discrimination, but the government denies it."
Children as young as 10 were among the demonstrators at Saturday’s protest, where some people carried yellow and red roses, while chanting slogans such as "We love Badawi". Others wore orange T-shirts printed with the slogan "People Power".
The protesters aimed to march to the Malaysian parliament to give the roses to Abdullah, but were halted by police a short distance away after being refused a permit to assemble in public.
The red roses symbolised love and peace, while the yellow roses symbolised the group’s demand for justice and the release of the jailed men, Hindraf said.
"We want our rights and justice," said one demonstrator, Tamilarasu, 21, a casual labourer at a golf resort who rode a bus for several hours from his home on the northern island of Penang to attend the protest in the capital. "We’re not happy with the government."
Police helicopters hovered overhead as protesters waved the Malaysian flag, portraits of the Malaysian king, and orange banners that read, "We want our rights, No to the Internal Security Act".
Protesters defied police orders to disperse, but scattered when sprayed with tear gas and water laced with chemicals. (Reporting by Liau Y-Sing; Writing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)