Malaysia Protesters Gather Despite Arrests, Rally Ban

Wall Street Journal
November 19, 2016

Najib Razak’s government has clamped down on opposition after questions emerged over the management of a state investment fund

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday to demand the resignation of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, the day after police banned the protest and arrested two of the activists who planned it.

The arrests came hours after police and regulatory officials on Friday raided the office of the activist group known formally as the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, but better known as Bersih, the Malay word for clean.

​According to the pair’s lawyer, Bersih Chairwoman Maria Chin Abdullah was detained as part of a police investigation into whether she should be charged for the crime of attempting to undermine Malaysia’s parliamentary democracy. The lawyer said police arrested Mandeep Singh, who is secretary of Bersih’s secretariat, as part of an investigation into whether he should be charged with rioting.

Police later confirmed the arrests and subsequent detention of at least eight other Bersih activists. Law enforcers also told the Bersih group’s lawyers that Ms. Chin was detained under the country’s security laws while the investigation into her activities continued. Three organizers of a counter-demonstration by a pro-government group known as the Red Shirts were also arrested, according to the Red Shirt group. Police on Friday banned both rallies.

Security forces blocked major roads in downtown Kuala Lumpur, but didn’t prevent protesters from traveling to the area by train or other means. Later, the Bersih protesters intend to march on Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, which also has been barricaded by police. Previous Bersih protests have drawn up to 50,000 participants, according to police estimates.

Before the protest dispersed in the late afternoon, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, now 91, joined the rally and addressed the crowd from the back of a pickup truck. The protest, he said, showed that “the people of Malaysia are willing to express their feelings and hatred toward this government.”

Mr. Najib’s government has clamped down on opposition lawmakers, media organizations and civil society groups over the past year and a half after as questions emerged over the management of a state investment fund he founded in 2009.

Investigations are taking place in at least five countries linked to alleged multibillion-dollar fraud surrounding the fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB. Swiss investigators say they believe that as much as $4 billion was misappropriated. The U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil case to seize 1MDB-linked assets. The first conviction of a person linked to the fund happened last week in Singapore.

Both 1MDB and Mr. Najib have denied any wrongdoing and pledged cooperation with any lawful investigation. The Malaysian attorney general has said the prime minister acted legally. Malaysian government officials couldn’t be reached for comment Friday.

A Malaysian court convicted an opposition lawmaker on Monday and sentenced him to 18 months in prison for breaking the country’s secrecy law by possessing a page from a classified report on 1MDB and releasing its contents to the media. The politician, Rafizi Ramli, denied the allegations and is appealing the conviction.

“We have not been allowed to speak up freely in Malaysia. Although the laws allow that, the laws are being used against us,” Ms. Chin told The Wall Street Journal in an interview shortly before her arrest. “If you want to speak up, there is a price to pay.”

The editor in chief of Malaysian online news portal Malaysiakini, meanwhile, was charged earlier Friday under the Communications and Multimedia Act for uploading offensive videos with the intent of annoying others. The videos posted in July featured a news conference by a dissident from Malaysia’s ruling party calling on the country’s attorney general to resign for clearing Mr. Najib of any wrongdoing relating to 1MDB.

“We are being charged for covering a press conference,” the editor, Steven Gan, said.

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