Massive Rally in Malaysia Calls For PM To Step Down

By Hata Wahiri
150829-MY-bersih-620 A throng of anti-government demonstrators, many of them clad in yellow shirts, fills a section of downtown Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 29, 2015.

Updated at 12:06 p.m. ET on 2015-08-31

In one of the biggest anti-government protests, about 200,000 people gathered in the heart of the Malaysian capital Saturday to call for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation over allegations of corruption and demand political and other reforms, despite police warnings of action against the "illegal" gathering.

Among those who joined the mammoth crowd, albeit briefly, was former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, one of Najib's harshest critics who has repeatedly called for his ouster over a multi-million dollar payments made to bank accounts under Najib's name.

"Continue, continue," Mahathir (pictured below) was quoted saying as he and his wife joined the rally organized by the Bersih reform movement in front of the City Hall building in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

"Just look around," he quipped when asked why he had decided to join the gathering, coming just ahead of the 58th anniversary of the nation's independence on Monday.

According to organizers, as many as 200,000 took part in the rally, but police said that only about 25,000 attended it.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad joins the Bersih rally in Kuala Lumpur, Aug. 29, 2015.

Government officials have admitted that Najib received nearly U.S. $700 million in mysterious deposits into his personal bank accounts starting in 2013.

But Najib has denied wrongdoing since the U.S.-based Wall Street Journal reported that investigators probing the management of debt-laden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) had discovered the unexplained transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars.

1MDB is ridden with U.S. $11 billion in debt, and Najib, who had sacked officials probing the scandal, chairs its advisory board.

Officials close to Najib say the money transfers were legitimate "political donations" from unidentified Middle Eastern sources but have given no further details.

The accounts have been closed, and it is unclear where the money went.

Sea of yellow

Streets in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday were filled with people dressed in yellow, the colors of Bersih, which called the two-day rally to also demand institutional reforms that would make the government more transparent and accountable. Previous Bersih rallies in 2011 and 2012 were dispersed by authorities with tear gas and water cannon.

Rallies are also being held simultaneously cities in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu on Borneo island and by Malaysian reform backers in foreign capitals.

Earlier in the day, Najib denounced the rally as disrespectful ahead of National Day.

"Are they that shallow and poor in their patriotism and love for their motherland?" state-run Bernama news agency quoted him as saying.

Kuala Lumpur City police chief Tajuddin Mohd. Isa said in a statement that the mass gathering was "peaceful" and there had been no untoward incidents or arrests.

Bersih leader Maria Chin Abdullah called for a vote of no confidence against Najib in Parliament.

“We have a message to all parliamentary members and political parties and everyone in Parliament — we want a vote of no-confidence against Najib,” she said in a short speech at Dataran Merdaka (Independence Square).

The crowd responded with cheers and shouts of “Agree.”

‘Huge frustrations’

Meanwhile, Transparency International Chairman Jose Ugaz said in statement issued Saturday that Najib's government had "failed to tackle the corruption scandals it faces, and people in positions of responsibility are acting with impunity."

Najib, 62, took power in 2009 and had vowed to end corruption, authoritarianism, as well as reform controversial race-based preferences for ethnic Malays, the multi-racial country's majority group.

Amnesty International asked Najib's government not to suppress the protests.

"There are huge frustrations with a number of endemic rights issues in Malaysia at the moment –the crackdown on freedom of expression by the government must end," Josef Benedict, Amnesty International's deputy campaigns director, said in a statement.


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