A protest rally in Malaysia against the government of Najib Razak — who is fighting allegations of grand corruption linked to a troubled state investment fund — brought thousands onto the streets of Kuala Lumpur but also spurred a widening official crackdown.
Although Saturday’s rally passed off peacefully, 15 activists and opposition politicians have been arrested on charges which human rights campaigners described as “manufactured”.
The charges ranged from rioting and undermining parliamentary democracy, while Maria Chin Abdullah, leader of the Bersih anti-corruption movement, was detained under counter-terrorism legislation. At least five pro-government activists were also arrested, according to the Malaysia Bar Council.
Mr Najib has described the Bersih protest movement as a “tool of the opposition”. In a statement on Saturday night, the Malaysian government claimed a fall in turnout compared with last year’s rally meant that Malaysians had “rejected the hypocrisy of Bersih.”
The crackdown was in stark contrast to a largely festive day in which protesters dressed in yellow T-shirts waved humorous signs including caricatures of the premier.
Protesters applauded police officers, and complied with their instructions not to march towards Merdeka Square, the iconic location where the British flag was lowered when Malaysia achieved independence.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who observed the protest on Saturday, said: “There have been 15 arrests and we are expecting many more in what will be an ongoing crackdown. These charges are not based in fact. They are using these charges to make them pay for holding a rally which challenged the government.”
Those arrested included two opposition MPs, Tian Chua and Zuraida Kamaruddin of the People’s Justice Party as well as artist Fahmi Reza, whose cartoon of Mr Najib in clown make-up has gone viral in Malaysia.
Bersih said on Sunday that Ms Chin Abdullah was being held in solitary confinement.
The moves appear to be a part of a broader slide into “dictatorial tactics” by the government, Mr Robertson said.
Last week, an opposition MP, Rafizi Ramli, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for disclosing classified information from the Malaysian auditor-general’s report into the scandal-hit investment fund 1MDB. The audit of 1MDB has yet to be declassified.
Mr Rafizi, whose sentence has been stayed pending his appeal, told the Financial Times: “The Official Secrets Act is meant for national security. It was never meant for corruption or to silence valid criticism.”
Mr Rafizi has been a leading critic of the Malaysian premier over the 1MDB affair, which is currently under investigation in at least six countries including the US, Switzerland and Singapore.
Swiss authorities allege that up to $4.8bn was siphoned from companies linked to 1MDB.
Mr Najib denies any wrongdoing. Malaysia’s attorney-general has cleared the prime minister of corruption in relation to transfers of $681m into his personal bank account.
The 1MDB affair has clouded investor sentiment towards Malaysia over the past year. While economic growth has picked up in the third quarter, foreign investors have grown concerned by the weakness of the ringgit, which has been sliding since Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory.
Malaysia’s central bank last week discouraged offshore trading of the ringgit in what it described as an effort to “ensure orderliness and stability”.
Turnout at the Bersih rally appeared to be down compared with last year, with just 40,000 protesters on the streets of Kuala Lumpur according to an estimate on the news website Malaysiakini. Estimates of last year’s turnout vary, but organisers claimed as many as 200,000.
Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, a polling agency, said: “I think people are fatigued by the politics and by these rallies as it doesn’t lead to a change of leadership.”
However, the proportion of ethnic Malays among the protesters appeared higher compared with 2015, observers said. Ethnic Malays make up the core support for Mr Najib, whose coalition was deserted by minority Chinese and Tamil voters at the last general election.
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