KUALA LUMPUR: Riot police fired teargas to disperse at least 5,000 ethnic Malays who demonstrated in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur Saturday against the use of English in local schools, witnesses said.
The protesters planned to march to the royal palace to ask the king to intervene in the row over schools teaching Science and Mathematics in English rather than in the Malay language.
But they were blocked by scores of anti-riot police.
Protester Hatta Ramli said police began to fire teargas without warning as the demonstrators began their march from the National Mosque to the palace about three kilometres (two miles) away.
"It was a peaceful march. They shot (teargas) without any warning," he said.
"Many times the police fired teargas at us. I am exhausted."
Language, race and religion are sensitive issues in multiracial Malaysia, which experienced deadly riots in 1969.
Malays make up 60 per cent of the population of about 27 million, compared to 26 per cent ethnic Chinese and eight per cent ethnic Indians.
The protest by pro-Malay language activists and opposition political leaders was held despite assurances from the government Friday that the Malay language would not be sidelined.
Najib Razak, deputy prime minister, said English was important in a globalised world but the government would continue to ensure Malay was the official teaching language.
"Mastering foreign languages does not necessarily erode an individual's identity," he told Bernama news agency.