Macau arrests five over unofficial democracy poll

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Police in Macau detained five people involved in staging an unofficial referendum on democracy in the southern Chinese territory, organisers said, nearly two months after activists angered Beijing by conducting a similar poll in Hong Kong.

The informal referendum among Macau's 600,000 residents coincides with the widely expected re-election of local leader Fernando Chui next Sunday. But it is an official body of 400 that elects the leader, similar to Hong Kong where a small committee of largely pro-Beijing loyalists chooses who gets on the ballot, effectively rendering the ability to vote meaningless.

The informal referendum in Macau, the world's biggest gambling hub, asks whether the new leader should be elected by universal suffrage in 2019.

Activists and local media said on Monday that five people were arrested for allegedly breaching the privacy law. Among those detained was organiser Jason Chao, who was charged with "serious disobedience with police', activists said. The five have been released.

Police in Macau shut down locations where electronic tablets were available to vote on whether the new leader should be elected by universal suffrage.

The online poll, which was launched on Sunday, aims to run for a week.

Bill Chou, vice-president of the New Macau Group, a grassroots organisation in Macau, said the crackdown was unnecessary and high-handed, adding that everyone being polled had done so by consent.

"We had asked their permission first before we collected their identity cards and related information. There is no reason for the police and other law enforcers to intervene and to arrest our people in charge," he said.

As of Monday morning, 4,700 people had voted. Civic movements in Hong Kong and Macau could prove to be the biggest challenge yet to Chinese rule in the two territories after Beijing ruled that a similar informal referendum in Hong Kong in June was illegal.

Several current and retired Chinese officials have warned in recent months that Beijing is prepared to unleash the army garrison to handle any riots in Hong Kong. The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, followed two years later by the Portuguese-run enclave of Macau.

Unlike Hong Kong, where calls for democracy have grown over the years, Macau has remained largely apolitical. But over the past year, Macau residents have become increasingly vocal over perceived inequalities, with more than 20,000 taking to the streets in May in protest.

A pro-democracy march in Hong Kong last month attracted more than half a million people, organisers said.

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