Malaysian police on Saturday fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse ethnic Indians gathered in the capital, in the latest crackdown on anti-discrimination protests, witnesses said.
Some 300 people clutching flowers defied a police ban and attempted to gather in Independence Square in downtown Kuala Lumpur, but police quickly moved in, an AFP correspondent witnessed.
"It is an embarrassing attack on the Indian community and on people who just wanted to hand over flowers to the prime minister," said R. Thanenthiran, one of the rally organisers.
The flower protest is the latest in a series of demonstrations in recent that have rocked the multicultural nation, which is now gearing up for general elections on March 8.
More than 20 people were detained, police said, after supporters of Indian rights group Hindraf turned up near Dataran Merdeka or Independence Square.
Police had earlier refused a permit for the gathering.
Indian youths dressed in saffron coloured t-shirts with the Tamil words "Makkal Sakti", or People's Power, chanted slogans calling for justice and an end to alleged discrimination against ethnic Indians in the country.
More than 200 police then surrounded the crowd before spraying them with water cannons and firing tear gas shells above their heads, the AFP correspondent witnessed.
The protest comes after the detention of five Hindraf leaders who enraged the government in November by leading a mass rally protesting alleged discrimination against minority ethnic Indians.
The protest highlighted the grievances of Malaysia's Indians – descendents of labourers brought over by British colonial rulers in the 1800s – who say they are marginalised in terms of education, wealth and opportunities.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has admitted that street protests and anger within the Indian community could have an impact on how the government fares in the general elections.
Ethnic Indians make up 7 percent of Malaysia's 27 million population with Malay Muslims forming 60 per cent and ethnic Chinese at 26 per cent. (AFP)
Malaysia police fire tear gas at protesters