Malaysia intensifies crackdown on anti-corruption protesters

Jeevan Vasagar
Financial Times
NOVEMBER 19, 2016

Thousands take to the streets after leader is arrested under anti-terror law

Malaysian authorities have intensified their crackdown on anti-corruption protesters, detaining the leader of a campaign group under antiterrorism legislation as thousands of demonstrators gathered on the streets of the capital demanding the resignation of prime minister.

Protesters in yellow T-shirts flooded the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, waving Malaysian flags and caricatures of Najib Razak, who has been buffeted by allegations of corruption relating to state investment fund 1MDB.

Ahead of the protest, Maria China Abdullah, who chairs the Bersih reform movement, was arrested. Fellow campaigners said on Saturday that she had been held under antiterrorism legislation which allows 28 days detention without trial.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, a lawyer and Bersih activist, tweeted: “I am so very shocked to hear they are holding Maria under Sosma. What an utter abuse of power.”

Campaigners said that Hishamuddin Rais, a Malaysian film director and political activist, had also been arrested.

Malaysia’s deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi told local media that police expected to arrest other leaders of the campaign group. A police spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Bersih movement began as a campaign for electoral reform, but has been energised by allegations that billions of dollars were siphoned off from the 1MDB fund.

Mr Najib has been battling allegations that $681m in proceeds from a 1MDB bond offering was paid into his personal bank account. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing. Malaysia’s attorney-general has ruled that the transfers were a donation.

The mood among the crowd was cheerful, with many holding homemade signs caricaturing Mr Najib as a demon or clown. One demonstrator waved a giant cheque for 2.6bn ringgit — the amount of the funds transferred to the prime minister’s account.

One of the demonstrators, Muhammad, an insurance salesman from Malacca, said: “We demand good governance and clean elections. The government is misusing Malaysian resources. 1MDB — that’s the biggest scandal right now.”

In recent weeks, there have been violent confrontations between the Bersih campaigners — who dress in yellow — and pro-government activists known as “red shirts”. There were fears of violence ahead of Saturday’s rally but no clashes were reported by early Saturday evening.

Jamal Yunos, leader of the red shirts, was arrested ahead of the rally. Red shirt activists also turned out in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, but in far smaller numbers, dispersing earlier in the day.

Mr Najib, who is in Peru for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, accused the protest movement of being a “tool of the opposition.”

Azalina Othman Said, a minister in the prime minister’s department, said: “The opposition leaders behind Bersih are a motley crew of former enemies driven by self-interest, not the greater good of society.”

Since the allegations of misappropriation first emerged last year, the Malaysian government has moved to stifle dissent. Mr Najib sacked a critical deputy prime minister while Malaysian authorities have blocked independent news websites and on Friday charged a journalist over reporting of the 1MDB scandal.

Among the protesters on Saturday was Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s long-serving former prime minister. Mr Mahathir, who was dressed in a yellow Bersih T-shirt, said: “This is a government of thieves who are using the police to stop people who are merely trying to have a peaceful rally.”

While Mr Mahathir has emerged as a fierce critic of his successor, his own period of government was notable for patronage and cronyism.

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