At least 80,000 people turned out onto the streets of the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur today (Saturday) for the first stage of the 34-hour Bersih 4 protest, which went off peacefully.
While local media put the attendance at about 80,000, the rally organisers said the protest attracted 200,000 people at its peak during the day. Police put the turnout at 29,000.
Tens of thousands of the demonstrators are planning to camp out overnight in central KL.
Police had declared the Bersih 4 rallies, which also took place in Kota Kinabalu and Kuching on the island of Borneo, to be illegal and Malaysia’s Inspector-General of Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, said those joining the rallies might face arrest under the 2012 Peaceful Assembly Act.
As of 10 p.m. today no arrests were reported.
“Bersih 4 is the biggest of all the Bersih rallies we’ve had,” former Bersih 2 chairwoman Ambiga Sreenevasan (pictured left) told the crowd in KL.
The capital turned into a sea of yellow, with most demonstrators wearing the banned Bersih 4 t-shirts.
“The whole country is standing in solidarity with us,” Ambiga said. “They are assembling in 75 cities around the world in 22 countries. We are here because we love our country.”
The rallies are being held to demand free and fair elections in Malaysia, a clean, transparent system of government, and an end to the corruption that has been plaguing the country for decades.
The demonstrators are calling for the resignation of the prime minister, Najib Razak, who is accused of siphoning off huge amounts of public money for his own use. They want parliamentary democracy to be strengthened and are demanding that the right to dissent should be preserved. The country’s economy, they say, has to be rescued.
The Malaysian currency, the ringgit, has weakened 18 percent in 2015 and prices of Malaysia’s largest commodities – oil, rubber and palm oil – have plummeted.
The youth wing of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or People’s Justice Party) has added a call for the release of the PKR’s de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim (pictured left), who is serving a five-year jail sentence for sodomy, to the Bersih 4 demands.
Anwar says the case against him was fabricated by his political enemies and the verdict has been strongly criticised both locally and internationally.
The Malaysian authorities refused to allow the Bersih 4 protesters to enter KL’s Merdeka Square, which is the venue for the Independence Day celebrations on August 31. They also blocked local access to the website run by the Bersih 4 organisers.
Bersih 4 organisers agreed that protesters will stay out of Merdeka (Independence) Square, but refused to change the date of the protest.
The former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has been highly critical of Najib, made a brief appearance at the KL rally, saying he wanted to take a look.
Ambiga said MPs should put forward a vote of no confidence against Najib.
Free Malasyia Today quoted her as saying the government must get rid of the much-criticised Goods and Services Tax (GST), brought in in April.
Bersih 2’s steering committee chairwoman and Bersih 4 organiser Maria Chin Abdullah (pictured left) also urged MPs to act. “This is the message we want to send,” she said. “We want Najib to step down.” She called on MPs to table a motion of no confidence against the prime minister once parliament reconvenes in October.
She added that the aim was to reform the whole political system, not merely change the prime minister. She told the Malay Insider that the demonstrators were not aiming to topple the government, but wanted to topple corrupt politicians.
Maria Chin said the rally-goers had been an “amazing crowd” and that Bersih 2 had raised 2.4 million ringgit (more than 570,000 US$) in donations.
The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which brought in their supporters from all over the country to Bersih rallies in the past, didn’t attend the Bersih 4 rally, saying the timing of the demonstration, so close to Merdeka Day on Monday, was inappropriate.
Accusations against Najib
The accusations against Najib centre on the debt-laden state fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
It was reported in July that investigators who were looking into alleged mismanagement at the sovereign wealth fund had traced a payment of more than 2.6 billion ringgit (about 620 million US$) to an account in Najib’s name.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission says the funds came from a donor in the Middle East. The donation was made just before the 2013 election. The agency wants to know why the money was deposited into Najib’s private account.
Mahathir Mohamad says he doesn’t believe the money was a donation, and has called for Najib to step down.
Najib (pictured left) denies any wrongdoing and says he has not taken any money for personal gain.
The prime minister has sacked his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, and other ministers who had publicly questioned him, and the Attorney-General, Abdul Gani Patail, who was investigating 1MDB, has been replaced.
Najib slammed the Bersih 4 protest. He was quoted by the national news agency Bernama as saying “Those who wear this yellow attire … they want to discredit our good name, scribble black coal on Malaysia’s face to the outside world …”.
In July, Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs ordered two newspapers – The Edge Weekly and The Edge Financial Daily – to suspend publication of their print editions for three months.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has said it will bar websites from promoting and spreading information about Bersih 4 and encouraging the public to take part in the rallies.
The Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, declared that any yellow clothing carrying the statement Bersih 4 and any printed material that promotes Bersih 4 are now illegal. It is therefore now considered to be illegal to wear a Bersih 4 t-shirt.