KUALA LUMPUR: Thousands of yellow-clad Malaysians flooded the capital on Saturday to demand Prime Minister Najib Razak resign over a corruption scandal, as feared clashes with pro-government rightists failed to materialize.
Leading reformist group Bersih, whose colour is yellow, turned out huge crowds for the second time in 15 months to vent anger over allegations that billions of dollars were looted from Najib’s brainchild investment fund, 1MDB.
Tensions in the Muslim-majority country had spiralled in recent weeks following threats by the “Red Shirts” ethnic-Malay rightist group to disrupt the demonstration.
The government arrested the leaders of both sides in the hours leading up to the rally.
That did little to stop Bersih’s momentum, but the Red Shirts turned out in far smaller numbers and began dispersing early. No clashes were reported.
Bersih’s demonstration shut down much of Kuala Lumpur, with riot police fencing off large areas at its symbolic heart.
Rivers of yellow
Rivers of yellow flowed downtown as Bersih marchers blew vuvuzelas, carried caricatures of Najib and other 1MDB figures, and chanted “Catch the Thief in Chief,” and “Hidup Rakyat! [‘Long live the people!’].
“We want a clean government. We want fair elections,” said Derek Wong, a 38-year-old real estate agent. “As a citizen I am out here peacefully to decide the future of the country. We hope to see Najib removed and charged in court.”
Bersih, which means “clean” in Malay, is an alliance of scores of NGOs and civil-society groups.
It has staged several protests over the years demanding electoral reform, but has recently shifted focus to 1MDB.
In August 2015, it drew even larger crowds for two days of peaceful demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur and other locations to demand Najib’s removal.
Malaysia has been seized for more than a year by the 1MDB scandal, which has sparked investigations in several countries.
Najib, 63, and 1MDB deny wrongdoing.
But the US Justice Department — which has filed lawsuits to recover assets it says were purchased with stolen 1MDB money — laid out evidence showing an audacious campaign of fraud and theft that involved an unnamed top Malaysian official.
A Malaysian Cabinet official has since admitted that individual was Najib.
Najib last year abruptly shut down Malaysian investigations, fired the attorney general and shored up his position by purging ruling-party critics.
On Friday, he condemned Bersih as a “deceitful” scheme “to unseat a democratically-elected government.”
Police on Friday arrested Bersih leader Maria Chin Abdullah, one of several reformists and opposition politicians detained.
Lawyers said Chin was held under a 2013 security law that allows detention without charge for up to 28 days and has been criticized by rights groups as ripe for abuse.
Amnesty International called the arrests “the latest in a series of crude and heavy-handed attempts” to silence dissent.
It called Chin and other detainees “prisoners of conscience.”
1MDB has intensified a sense of gloom among progressives and reform advocates who had already accused Najib of reneging on earlier promises to eliminate graft and end the 59-year-old ruling coalition’s repressive tendencies.
Critics, including former strongman ruler Mahathir Mohamad, accuse Najib of lurching toward autocracy to stifle the scandal with elections due within 18 months.