Tens of thousands joined a peaceful protest in Kuala Lumpur Saturday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, bringing to the streets a political crisis over a multi-million-dollar payment made to an account under his name.
The Malaysian leader, who has denied wrongdoing, has weathered weeks of attacks since it was reported that investigators probing the management of debt-laden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) had discovered the unexplained transfer of more than $600 million.
Protesters hope to spark a people’s power movement forcing Najib out, but political analysts doubt he will be toppled.
Security was tight and several anti-riot trucks and a water cannon were parked near a central square where protesters had planned to converge. In the end, they hung back behind barricades.
Pro-democracy organization Bersih, which organized the two-day rally in Kuala Lumpur and the two main cities on Malaysia’s side of Borneo, said the crowd in the capital swelled to 200,000 at its peak. The Malaysiakini news portal put the number at half that and police said it was just 25,000.
There were no reports of violence and the mood was festive as protesters with “Out, Najib, Out” placards blew plastic horns and shouted “bersih!”, a Malay word for “clean”.
“We the Malaysians want to clean up this country, we reject dirty politics,” said Tinagar Veranogan, a demonstrator in a crowd of predominantly young people who were mostly from the ethnic Indian and Chinese minority communities.
City authorities rejected an application by Bersih for a protest permit, raising fears of a repeat of a 2012 rally when police used water cannon and teargas to disperse protesters.
The government blocked access to Bersih’s website and banned wearing of its signature yellow T-shirts, although the crowd of protesters was a sea of yellow.
“For 58 years people have been patient with bribes, a political system that cannot resolve 1MDB. Today we want reform,” said Bersih leader Maria Chin, calling on parliament to hold a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister.
The second day of the rally is due to start on Sunday with physical exercises, mass at a cathedral and interfaith prayers.
Amnesty International urged Malaysia’s government to listen to the protesters instead of trying to suppress them.
“There are huge frustrations with a number of endemic rights issues in Malaysia at the moment – the crackdown on freedom of expression by the government must end,” Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Deputy Campaigns Director, said in a statement.
Najib was not in Kuala Lumpur. The Bernama national news agency quoted him as saying from the eastern state of Pahang that the patriotism of the rally organizers and participants was “shallow and poor”.
Analysts say the Bersih movement is unlikely to inspire broad public support because it lacks strong leadership.
Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Center, said discontent with Najib, who took office in 2009, is concentrated in urban areas and a national survey this month by his group showed a slight majority opposed the rally.
Malaysia’s anti-graft agency has said the funds paid into Najib’s account were a donation from the Middle East, which came just before a 2013 election, but the identity of the donor has not been revealed.
Najib, 62, says he did not take any money for personal gain.
He has sacked his deputy and other ministers who had publicly questioned him, and the attorney-general who was investigating 1MDB has been replaced. Authorities suspended two newspapers and blocked access to a website that had reported on 1MDB.
Najib retains significant support from the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and from his party, the United Malays National Organisation that represents the Malay majority.
The coalition, in power since 1957, lost the popular vote for the first time in 2013 to an opposition alliance that split this year.