Malaysian pro-democracy activists have vowed to go ahead with a massive rally this weekend to demand Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation over a financial scandal despite a police ban and fears of clashes with a pro-government group. Najib has kept an iron grip since graft allegations emerged two years ago in the indebted 1MDB state investment fund that he founded. The fund is at the center of investigations in the U.S. and several other countries. Electoral reform group Bersih said Najib must step down to allow an independent investigation into 1MDB.
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“We are taking to the street because there is something rotten in the state of Malaysia. Poor governance and a lack of accountability have resulted in grand corruption in 1MDB,” said Bersih chairwoman Maria Chin. A ruling party politician, Jamal Mohamad Yunos, plans to lead a counter rally in Kuala Lumpur, prompting fears of a clash between his group dubbed the “Red Shirts” and Bersih’s “Yellow Shirt” supporters.
Bersih is supported by many civil groups as well as opposition parties. A rally it organized in August 2015 also demanding Najib’s resignation attracted 50,000 people according to police estimates. Bersih said the number was much higher. Police have banned both rallies on Saturday and the government has warned that police will act against any participants.
Najib, who was in Japan for a visit, was quoted by the national Bernama news agency as saying that trying to change the government through street protests is unconstitutional and leads to chaos. “You cannot indulge in any kind of physical clash at all…. and that’s not the culture that we will want to be accepted as our way of life in Malaysia,” he said, adding the public should wait for the next election in 2018.
Chin said the people have a right to peaceful assembly. “We are protesting because keeping silent on corruption and abuse of power is not an option,” she said. The 1MDB fund has been at the center of investigations in the US and several countries amid 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 says at least $3.5 billion has been stolen from 1MDB by people close to Najib and initiated action in July to seize $1.3 billion it says was taken from the fund to buy assets in the US. The government complaints also say that more than $700 million has landed in the accounts of “Malaysian Official 1.” They did not name the official, but appear to be referring to Najib. The prime minister has denied any wrongdoing since the allegations of massive fraud in the fund erupted last year.