KUALA LUMPUR: Thousands of ruling-party supporters marched through Malaysia’s capital Wednesday to support the embattled government and assert the political dominance of the Malay majority, in a demonstration whose racial overtones have sparked concern.
The demonstration was organized by figures in the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in response to massive street rallies last month calling for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation over a financial scandal.
The vast majority of those marching in Kuala Lumpur Wednesday were young ethnic Malay men wearing UMNO red, with some carrying banners and shouting slogans such as “Long live the Malays.”
“I came to defend Malay rights,” said Aswad Shaari, 25, who was among large numbers of Malays bussed in by organizers from the countryside.
UMNO has controlled multi-ethnic Malaysia for 58 years, reserving economic and other advantages for Muslim Malays. Malaysia also has sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
But UMNO’s government has suffered worsening election setbacks amid growing disgust with money politics, corruption, and allegations of repression and electoral chicanery.
The party has increasingly resorted to racial rhetoric to shore up Malay Muslim support, raising ethnic tensions.
The demonstrators had planned to march through commercial and tourist districts dominated by ethnic Chinese-run businesses. Chinese make up about a quarter of Malaysia’s population.
But authorities have said they would be diverted from those areas to avoid trouble.
Hundreds of police were deployed throughout central Kuala Lumpur, and some Chinese commercial areas were sealed off, leaving bemused tourists to wander among the heavy security and shuttered shops.
A rally was scheduled at a central park area later.
Organizers have vowed the demonstration would be peaceful.
But the rally has been criticized by both ruling-party and opposition figures as racially provocative in a country where deadly sectarian riots in 1969 are still regularly cited as a cautionary tale.
Najib, who was already under fire over huge sums of money missing from a state firm he launched, has been deeply tarnished by the revelation in July that Malaysian investigators had discovered nearly $700 million in deposits into his personal bank accounts.
His government has called them “political donations” from Middle Eastern sources but has refused to give details.
Najib subsequently sacked his attorney general and made other personnel moves critics say were intended to hamper criminal investigations.