A Malaysian rightist figure has vowed that his supporters will confront a planned large-scale protest against corruption-tainted prime minister Najib Razak this month, warning ominously that “anything can happen, including violence.”
Jamal Yunos and his “Red Shirts” group are widely dismissed as ruling-party thugs-for-hire who will seek to suppress any moves against Najib in relation to a huge graft scandal.
But Jamal’s confrontational tactics and racially charged rhetoric have stirred growing unease in a country where open political violence is rare.
Mobs of Red Shirts have assaulted reform advocates staging a weeks-long roadshow through Malaysia to highlight the scandal.
The anti-graft campaign is due to culminate with a planned November 19 rally in Kuala Lumpur to demand Najib quit and be charged. Jamal, 46, is vowing to confront it with his Red Shirt army.
“Anything can happen. I am not saying we will use violence. Anything can happen, including violence,” he said in an interview.
Malaysia’s often-acrimonious politics have been preoccupied for more than a year by Najib’s alleged involvement in looting billions of dollars from the state-owned fund 1MDB.
Najib and 1MDB deny wrongdoing; however US Justice Department filings in July laid out detailed evidence implicating the prime minister, his stepson and associates.
Authorities in several countries are investigating.
Red vs Yellow
After Najib quashed domestic probes, the leading civil-society alliance Bersih brought tens of thousands of its yellow-shirted supporters out for massive but peaceful demonstrations in August 2015.
It vows a repeat on November 19 despite authorities declaring the rally – and any Red Shirt counter-demonstration – illegal.
“What’s worse is that Bersih 5 (the November 19 rally) has a political agenda to topple democracy in Malaysia via street protests, which happened in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Libya,” Jamal said.
“We do not want this to happen in Malaysia, which is a peaceful country.”
Despite wearing the crimson colours of Najib’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Jamal denies being bankrolled by the party, saying funding comes from his own various businesses.
Yet Jamal’s credibility has been hurt by a series of bizarre claims he has made. They include that Bersih – originally formed to press for electoral reform – is infiltrated by Islamic State (IS) suicide bombers, and that Jews created the IS.
Any allegations against Najib, however, are false, insists Jamal. In recent weeks, dozens of Red Shirts have demonstrated outside the offices of a leading independent news portal, accusing it of being a foreign front and drawing a warning from Amnesty International that the group poses a threat to free speech.
“Bersih’s tactics have become more openly confrontational, and provoked more openly confrontational tactics form the Red Shirts. The government must recognise that this is an escalation,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics expert with Turkey’s Ipek University.
The situation has attracted comparisons with neighbouring Thailand, where a Red-vs-Yellow struggle saw dozens killed in 2010 street battles and later strife that prompted a 2014 military coup.
UMNO-led coalitions have dominated Muslim-majority Malaysia for decades but have steadily ceded ground in recent elections. The next polls are due within 18 months.
The Red Shirts embody the “desperation” of a hardline Malay elite fearful of losing power to moderate Malays and the Chinese minority, but the group likely enjoys little public support, Welsh said.
Malaysian police have vowed to prevent unrest on November 19, and Jamal’s threat to unleash 300,000 Red Shirts is widely dismissed.
Najib, who has veered sharply rightward in recent years as his woes have mounted, has not denounced the Red Shirts despite Jamal’s provocative comments, which include warning of a repeat of the deadly May 1969 race riots that still haunt the multi-cultural nation.
“I, and the Reds group, also want to remind (people) that it is possible the (1969 racial riots) incident can happen again if political groups or Malaysians put their interest ahead of peace and harmony,” Jamal told AFP.