December 20, 2007 / 10:34 AM / 11 years ago

UPDATE 1-Thousands march in Macau for democracy, clean govt

MACAU, Dec 20 (Reuters) - More than 1,000 people marched through Macau streets on Thursday demanding an end to corruption and calling for greater democracy at a time of mounting tensions and social inequalities in the gambling haven.

“Fight for democracy. Protect our livelihood,” shouted the protesters, who brandished banners and shouted slogans denouncing what they called the authorities’ poor and opaque governance of the former Portuguese enclave.

The rally marked the eighth anniversary of Macau’s reversion to Chinese rule, and came as the city of about 500,000 grapples with a raft of challenges that have accompanied an unprecedented boom in its casino industry.

Earlier in the day, Macau Chief Executive Edmund Ho presided over a flag-raising ceremony to mark the anniversary.

Macau’s rich-poor divide has widened in recent years, and the city’s biggest ever corruption trial, involving former secretary for transport and public works, Ao Man-long, has rekindled worries about endemic graft.

“Do you think Ao Man-long is the only corrupt official in Macau?” opposition legislator Au Kam-san shouted through a loudhailer. The protesters yelled back “No”.

Since 2002, Macau has flung open its doors to Western gaming giants such as Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and MGM Mirage, which opened a 600-room joint venture gambling hotel in Macau earlier this week.

To feed the construction and hiring boom, Macau has had to import workers, and the marchers on Thursday protested what they called an influx of illegal labourers.

Police blocked off roads and kept close tabs on the protesters as they snaked their way for several kilometers (miles) through Macau’s narrow streets.

Earlier this year, during a May Day protest, a policeman fired warning shots into the air as riot squads struggled to disperse crowds demanding labour rights and an end to corruption. One bullet struck a motorcyclist in the neck several blocks away.

Thursday’s rally included labour unionists, members of professional and political groups, and ordinary residents.

“There are old ladies in Macau who push around rubbish for nothing. Now that the government has money, why can’t it help the poor? It’s inexcusable,” said Mike Tam, 24, who turned up with a group of friends.

Macau reverted to Beijing rule in 1999, ending centuries of Portuguese control, two years after the next-door former British colony of Hong Kong was handed back to China.

Thursday’s rally was not as large or as heated as some of the previous demonstrations in Macau over the past year, but some observers said it showed that social disharmony was now spreading into middle-income homes.

“More and more people are more concerned that the governance in Macau is not very ideal, not very transparent and not fair to the people, especially the grassroots,” said Larry So, a Macau-based social commentator. (Editing by John Ruwitch and Roger Crabb)

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