Malaysia: Bersih Protest will not Drive Him from Office, PM Says

Shuman Vasu
Kuala Lumpur
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16117-MY-Bersih-620.jpg Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks to reporters after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Nov. 16, 2016.

In his first public comments about an upcoming rally calling for his resignation, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said protests were not part of his country’s culture and suggested that his critics could only remove him through the ballot box.

At the end of a three-day visit to Japan, Najib spoke about the Bersih 5.0 rally being planned in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. A huge crowd of yellow-shirted protestors is expected to march and demand that he step down over corruption allegations linked to state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

A counter-protest is being planned for the same day in the Malaysian capital by the so-called Red Shirts, a group of activists who support Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party. Malaysian authorities have warned that they will crack down if any violence breaks out between the two groups or during their respective rallies.

“We have seen this happening in many countries. Even the so-called Arab Spring was heralded as an era of change, but instead it caused misery to the people in the countries concerned,” he said Wednesday night at the end of a three-day visit to Japan, The Star reported. In 2011, a series of anti-government protests that led to peaceful ouster of some dictators swept across North Africa and the Middle East, and came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Bersih, a coalition of NGOs that advocate transparent government, is known for the yellow shirts worn by its supporters, and has staged massive rallies in each of the past four years. Last year’s edition, Bersih 4.0 rally, which also called for Najib’s resignation over 1MDB, drew more than 100,000 people to Kuala Lumpur over two days. Organizers expect a similarly sized crowd for this year’s one-day rally.

“The best time is to decide when the time comes. There will be an election and people can make their choice and we will abide by the decision of the rakyat [people]. And that’s important,” Najib said, referring to Malaysia’s 14th general election, which is due in June 2018, state news agency Bernama quoted him as saying in Tokyo.

During the weeks leading up to Saturday’s Bersih rally, standoffs have taken place between the groups activists as Bersih members have campaigned nationwide to mobilize support among rural Malaysians for the demonstration in the capital.

Najib, who has denied any wrongdoing in a face of 1MDB-linked allegations against him, also expressed concerns about possible clashes between the two groups on Saturday, saying that street protests were “not an accepted culture in our country.”

“I don’t want any physical clashes,” he told Bernama.

‘Police will not compromise’

Malaysia’s Peaceful Assembly Act of 2012 allows for peaceful public assemblies without permits. This year, Bersih submitted the required 10-day notice to several police headquarters in the Kuala Lumpur area.

City government officials, however, have submitted a letter requesting that no groups enter the proposed rally area near City Hall.

On Thursday, Malaysian Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar declared both of the rallies being planned for Saturday as illegal, saying that the groups should find different venues.

According to Bernama, Khalid said that both of the planned rallies “did not meet legal provisions, especially the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.”

Two days earlier, he had warned that police officers would use tear gas and water cannons, if violence broke out at the rallies.

Also on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – who is the home minister as well – issued a final warning, stating that “both parties should call off their rallies” or face action.

“The police will not compromise in terms of action that will be taken against them under the law,” Zahid told reporters.

In a text message to BenarNews, Jamal Md Yunos, the leader of the Red Shirts, vowed to carry on with the counter-protest.

“If yellow turns up, the red will definitely, too,” he told BenarNews via a text message, in response to Zahid’s warning.

‘Part of our right to dissent’

In response to Najib’s comments, Bersih chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah said that demonstrations and street protests had always been part of the Malaysian culture and dated back to the nation’s pre-independence years.

“UMNO would not have survived if they had not gone to the streets. If you remember how we gained independence, we were on the streets. It is part of our right to dissent. So street demonstrations have also been part of our culture,” she told a press conference.


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