Thousands of yellow-shirt protesters rallied Saturday in downtown Kuala Lumpur seeking Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation over a financial scandal, undeterred by a police ban and the arrest of 15 activists. Police barricaded key roads in downtown Kuala Lumpur and put water-cannon trucks on standby, but it did not stop protesters. Some were chanting “Save Democracy” and “Bersih, Bersih”_ the name of the electoral reform group that organized the rally. The name means “clean” in the Malay language. The protesters gathered around the Independent Square, the main venue that was locked down by police. A smaller group of red-shirt pro-government supporters held a counter-rally.
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Najib, who is attending an Asia-Pacific summit in Lima, Peru, has kept an iron grip since graft allegations emerged two years ago involving the indebted 1MDB state fund that he founded. 1MDB is at the center of investigations in the U.S. and several other countries. Najib, who has denied any wrongdoing, has said he won’t be cowed by the rallies.
In a statement on his blog, Najib called Bersih “deceitful” and said the group has become a tool for opposition parties to unseat a democratically elected government. “We want to see Malaysia more developed and not robbed of billions of ringgit,” said Wan Aisyah Wan Ariffin, an opposition supporter. Police said in a statement they raided the Bersih office on Friday and detained its chairwoman Maria Chin for investigation into “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”
Another Bersih official, Mandeep Singh, and 12 others including several politicians were also detained, mostly in connection with the rally and to prevent rioting, the police said.
Those detained include ruling party politician Jamal Mohamad Yunos, whose supporters trooped to downtown Kuala Lumpur to counter the Bersih rally. Police have banned both events by Bersih’s yellow-shirt supporters and Jamal’s red-shirt group. Bersih said on Twitter that another of its official, Hishamuddin Rais, was nabbed Saturday after giving a speech to supporters at a commuter station.
A rally that Bersih organized in August 2015 also demanding Najib’s resignation brought together 50,000 people, according to police estimates. Bersih said the number was much higher. Human rights group Amnesty International slammed the crackdown and called for the immediate release of the Bersih activists, describing them as prisoners of conscience. “These arrests are the latest in a series of crude and heavy-handed attempts to intimidate Malaysian civil society activists and other human rights defenders,” Amnesty said in a statement.
The investigations into 1MDB fund are centered on allegations of a global embezzlement and money-laundering scheme. Najib started the fund shortly after taking office in 2009 to promote economic development projects, but the fund accumulated billions in debt over the years. The US Justice Department said that at least $3.5 billion had been stolen from 1MDB by people close to Najib and initiated action in July to seize $1.3 billion it said was taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S.
The U.S. government complaints also said that more than $700 million had landed in the accounts of “Malaysian Official 1.” They did not name the official, but appear to be referring to Najib.