KUALA LUMPUR – Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Malaysia’s capital on Saturday (Nov 19) calling for Prime Minister Najib Razak to resign over graft allegations, despite a dragnet that saw at least 13 activists being detained overnight on Friday.
Among the detained was rally organiser Maria Chin Abdullah. She was held under Sosma, or Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, her lawyer said on Saturday.
Turnout was lower than a similar rally last year, with news portal Malaysiakini estimating around 40,000 participants. Malaysian police said 15,500 Bersih supporters and 2,500 pro-government supporters turned out on the streets. The crowd dispersed at about 5:30pm. .
More arrests were made following the rally on Saturday. PKR vice-president Tian Chua was picked up late on Saturday. Earlier, Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh said activists Hishamuddin Rais, Howard Lee, cartoonist Fahmi Reza and Umno Youth exco Datuk Armand Azha Abu Hanifah had been arrested following the rally on Saturday.
“We also arrested a 49-year-old man for flying a drone under Section 143 of the Domestic Flight Rules, a 33-year-old man for possessing a parang and bronze knuckles, and another 33-year-old man for kicking a man believed to be a Bersih supporter,” he said in a statement.
In the afternoon, former leader Mahathir Mohamad showed up in the rally, accompanied by former deputy prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and his son former Kedah Mentri Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir.
“Time has come for us to topple this cruel regime. Najib is no longer suitable to be the prime minister. He is abusing the law,” Dr Mahathir told the crowd that gathered under the Petronas Twin Towers, a jewel of his reign and a symbol of modern Malaysia.
He accused Mr Najib of stealing public money and said Malaysia was “controlled by thieves”.
“Please join the opposition because it’s the opposition who wants reform and a democratic government that wouldn’t misuse the country’s laws,” he said.
Earlier, he also accused the government of being “very cowardly” for attempting to prevent the demonstration “guaranteed under the constitution”.
Asked if the rally is Chinese-dominated, Dr Mahathir said “it’s not about race”.
“Everybody is concerned about the country…There’s no question on race here. Everyone feels concerned about the kind of government we have.”
Dr Mahathir, 91, flew back on Saturday from a conference in Sudan to appear with tens of thousands of protesters on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
The electoral reforms group proceeded with the protest that saw supporters gather from 10am at Maybank Square in Bangsar and the National Mosque which is a short walk away from the iconic Independence Square.
Police and Kuala Lumpur City Hall have refused to allow protesters to use the field, and demonstrators will likely have to gather in the streets around it, as with previous rallies held by Bersih.
Road blocks have been set up at several major arteries around the city, although this has not deterred both rally-goers and petty traders from turning up at daybreak.
In August last year, tens of thousands clad in yellow brought the capital to a standstill in an overnight rally. Police said 50,000 protesters turned up, Bersih said 500,000.
The protests came on the back of revelations that Prime Minister Najib received US$700 million (S$998 million) linked to troubled state investor 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) in his personal bank accounts.
The arrests on Friday (Nov 18) saw not just several Bersih officials being arrested after a raid at its office, but also opposition MPs, student activists and even pro-government “Red Shirt” leader Jamal Yunos, whose movement is set to hold a counter-protest against Bersih on Saturday.
Datuk Jamal, an Umno divisional leader, was detained at 1.30am in a downtown hotel, having skipped out on scheduled press briefings earlier in the day.
Police are expected to keep the opposing groups apart, as the Red Shirts have since last month harassed and allegedly assaulted Bersih activists and journalists across the country.
Datuk Seri Najib has denied any wrongdoing, insisting the bulk of the money was a political donation from the Saudi royal family. Despite probes into 1MDB’s dealings around the world resulting in seizures of disputed assets in the United States and Singapore, Malaysia has yet to prosecute any company or government official involved.
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