Pro-Government Rally Ends in Malaysia Capital After Standoff

  • Water cannons fired on protesters trying to enter Chinese area
  • Rally follows large anti-government gathering last month

A pro-government rally in the Malaysian capital ended after police dispersed a group of protesters trying to break through to a Chinese business area of Kuala Lumpur, averting clashes that may have stoked racial tension in the secular Muslim nation.

Police fired water cannons into the crowd of about several hundred people early Wednesday evening after alarms by the anti-riot squad failed to break them up. At least three were injured before the crowd finally left after a standoff with police for hours. A rally in another part of the city was peaceful even as speakers there spoke of Malay rights and called for a reinstatement of the Internal Security Act.

The protest is a riposte to an anti-government rally in late August that drew hundreds of thousands -- many of them ethnic Chinese -- calling for Prime Minister Najib Razak’s resignation over a funding scandal. City police chief Tajuddin Mohd. Isa had put the crowd at 35,000 for Wednesday’s gathering, while organizers estimated 300,000 followers.

Roads in central Kuala Lumpur were blocked off amid a heavy police presence. At a subway station near the city’s famous Petronas Twin Towers, a group of about 50 men wore red T-shirts emblazoned with a Keris -- a dagger regarded as a symbol of Malay supremacy -- or with the words “Rise Malays.”

Racial Tension

The rally brings a racial element to two months of upheaval for Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy, which faces an exodus of capital amid worsening global growth and whose currency has been the worst performer in Asia this year. Najib has been strongly supported by ethnic Malays over a scandal involving the debt-ridden state investment company.

Only a third of the protesters at the August anti-government rally were Malay, with the gathering dominated by ethnic Chinese who have drifted from Najib’s coalition in recent years. Malays account for as much as 60 percent of the country’s 30 million people, though estimates vary, and are the cornerstone of Najib’s United Malays National Organisation.

"There is too much of politicking in his country especially created by the
opposition," said Akbar Ismail, 48, who said he came to show his solidarity despite not being a member of any group. "Something must done to stop them as it’s pulling the country down. There are many other important things to focus on instead of everyone becoming emotional and racist."

Malaysia Day

Najib was a teenager when riots erupted between Muslim Malays and ethnic Chinese in Kuala Lumpur in 1969. His father Abdul Razak Hussein became prime minister the following year and responded with a program to reduce Chinese dominance in business by giving preferential treatment to Bumiputeras, which refers to the Malay and indigenous people. Those programs still exist today.

Wednesday’s rally had the support of some UMNO members, with the party’s information chief Ahmad Maslan making an appearance. Police will act against anyone inciting racial tensions, the Star reported, citing deputy premier Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. Around the city, protesters carried banners saying “Malaysia Belongs to the Malays” while there were reports of Chinese businesses shuttering for the day.

The protest coincides with Malaysia Day, the 52nd anniversary of its formation through the amalgamation of Malaya, the British colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak, and Singapore. Singapore left the federation in 1965. Najib was in Sabah state to mark the day.

Burning Shops

"The peace and security of the nation is my government’s top priority," Najib was cited as saying by state news agency Bernama Wednesday. "We have seen the blood on the streets. We have seen the burning shops, but let me say this - I will never allow that to happen in Malaysia."

Former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin said the best way to fight for the “dignity of the Malays” is not by arousing racial sentiments. “While we respect the right of individuals to assemble, it must be remembered that an issue no less important is peace and racial harmony and national security,” Muhyiddin said on Facebook.

Muhyiddin was dumped from his cabinet post in late July for calling for an explanation on reports Najib received billions of ringgit linked to 1MDB in his private accounts in 2013. Najib has denied the claims.

The government in 2012 repealed the Internal Security Act, first introduced in the 1960s to combat communist insurgents and which allowed indefinite detention without trial, with new legislation curbing how long police can hold suspects without trial.

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