Former Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, joining anti-government protesters for a second day Sunday, called for a “people’s power” movement to topple Prime Minister Najib Razak over a financial scandal.
“The only way for the people to get back to the old system is for them to remove this prime minister,” said Mahathir, a deeply respected 90-year-old who was once Najib’s patron and is now his fiercest critic.
“And to remove him, the people must show people’s power. The people as a whole do not want this kind of corrupt leader,” he told media before heading to the rally, whose numbers police estimated at 25,000 Sunday afternoon.
The protest has brought into the streets a political crisis triggered by reports of a mysterious transfer worth more than $600 million into an account under Najib’s name.
Najib, who denies wrongdoing, has weathered the storm and analysts say the protest is unlikely to inspire broad public support for him to quit because it lacks a strong leader.
These protests, unlike the 2012 rally, also lack the support of a party identified with the Malay majority: most protesters were from the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities.
However, Mahathir – the country’s longest-serving leader – was a leader of the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which represents Malays.
UMNO Vice-President Hishammuddin Hussein said that by turning up unexpectedly at the anti-government rally on Saturday, Mahathir had “crossed over the line”.
Another UMNO leader said a million government supporters would stage a “red shirts” rally on Oct. 10 that would trump the protests of the past two days.
“This shows the solidarity of Malaysians, that Najib still has the majority support,” Jamal Yunos told Reuters.
Security remained tight and anti-riot trucks stood ready, but there were no reports of violence. City authorities rejected an application by pro-democracy group Bersih for a protest permit, which had raised fears of a repeat of a 2012 rally when police used water cannon and teargas to disperse protesters.
In a sign that the government was losing patience, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi warned organizers they could face legal action.
“They must face the consequences if they dare to break the law,” he said, according to a New Straits Times online report.
The national news agency Bernama said 12 people in the southwestern city of Malacca were arrested for wearing the signature yellow T-shirts of the protests, which the government had banned before the rally.
Food poisoning hits participants
Bersih 4 organisers raised suspicions on an alleged act of sabotage after 16 participants suffered food poisoning Saturday and Sunday after they apparently drank free fruit juice packets with puncture marks, The Star/Asia News Network report.
Bersih chairman Maria Chin Abdullah said its medical team spotted the drinks, which were distributed to supporters during Saturday’s rally, as having needle holes on the packets.
The 13 people who suffered food poisoning Saturday were said to have drunk from the packets after they were given out for free by unknown individuals.
The six affected had suffered from vomiting and nausea, he added.
Tan said the father of the two girls had also come down with food poisoning.
The first victim had sought assistance from the medical team about 9.45 pm Saturday, he said.
The other seven, Tan said, were released on condition that they were accompanied by their families or friends.
Tan said three more people came down with food poisoning Sunday, but were treated at their base in Merdeka Square.
He said those who may have drunk from the contaminated food packets may experience stomach discomfort, burning sensations, nausea and vomiting.
“If you have these symptoms, please report to the medical tents in your area,” he said.
Said Chin Abdullah: “It looks like sabotage. It is disgusting! This is about people’s lives.
“I condemn whoever was giving out these packets and I urge supporters to not accept any free drinks that are being given out during the rally,” she added.
Chin Abdullah said supporters should only take the bottled water given out by official Bersih 4 volunteers.
The rally’s medical team lodged a police report following the incident.
“I don’t want to speculate on what could have been in the drinks. We leave it to the police to investigate,” Tan said.