The “red shirt” rally held in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, yesterday degenerated into violence when a group of protesters tried to break through police barricades and push their way into the Petaling Street market area, where the mainly Chinese-owned stores were closed for fear of violence.
Police used a water cannon against the demonstrators and there were then lengthy negotiations before the protesters finally agreed to leave the area.
According to police estimates, a total of about 35,000 “red shirt” protesters rallied in KL. They marched from various points in the city, and gathered at a location known as Padang Merbok.
The protest organisers initially said they wanted to uphold Malay dignity. They later said they wanted to promote citizens’ unity. There is a clear aim to counter the 34-hour Bersih 4 rally held on August 29 and 30, which brought at least 80,000 people out onto the streets. The “red shirts” say Bersih 4 was a show of force by a group dominated by the Chinese, and was anti-Malay.
Police had given the “red shirt” ralliers permission to gather at Padang Merbok, but told the organisers that Petaling Street in Chinatown and Bukit Bintang, another heavily-Chinese area, were off-limits.
The main organiser of the “red shirt” rally, Malay Muslim NGO coalition chairman Jamal Yunos, came to Petaling Street to talk to ralliers at the request of the police.
Jamal says action needs to be taken against vendors selling counterfeit goods in Petaling Street. He told the crowd that he would report the vendors to the Ministry of Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism.
He said the ministry should take action against the Petaling Street vendors or demonstrators would protest again. He said a press conference would be held on Friday.
There are those that say the “red shirts” are targeting Petaling Street simply because it is a Chinese area, not because there is illegal trading.
There were reports that several Chinese journalists were pushed around by demonstrators yesterday.
Police assistant ground commander Roslan Abdul Wahid said protesters had started to push aggressively against the barricades set up by the police and the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) riot squad in Chinatown.
The police had allowed three of the protesters to go into the Petaling Street market area to see that it was closed for business, Roslan said, but others in the crowd still demanded to be allowed entry. The gathering was made up of small groups with no leader, he added, and this made the situation hard to keep under control.
Several of the protesters started pushing, Roslan said. “The third time they pushed, our policemen fell backwards, so two or three of our men were injured. So we had to push them back.”
Some demonstrators then fell down. A demonstrator then threw a rock, which hit and injured another protester.
Water cannon was used, Roslan said, when demonstrators started to throw other projectiles at police. “We used a very minimum force, just to cool them down. Our intention was to disperse them, not to injure them.” The aim was to avoid casualties, Roslan said.
It was confirmed later in the evening that two police officers suffered slight injuries. There were reports that two men,
There was also tension in the Bukit Bintang area, where police wanted to keep the protesters away from Low Yat Plaza, which was the scene of unrest in July. Two Chinese photographers and a Chinese reporter were attacked and injured during the unrest.
Yesterday, about 10,000 demonstrators gathered in Bukit Bintang. Protesters went through several police barricades, Roslan said, but the situation was kept under control, with no arrests.
The Bersih 4 rally in August went off peacefully. While local media put the attendance on the first day at about 80,000, the rally organisers said the protest attracted 200,000 people at its peak. Police put the turnout on August 29 at 29,000.
Tens of thousands of the demonstrators camped out overnight in central KL. There were solidarity rallies in in 75 cities in 22 countries.
The Bersih demonstrators called 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) 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 “red shirts” say the Bersih 4 protest was anti-Malay. The Bersih organisers dispute this, and are backed up by the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who made a brief appearance at Bersih 4, and says all races were present at the rally.
A major target of the “red shirt” protesters is the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).
Many of the Malays at yesterday’s rally were bussed in from areas outside of KL. There are allegations that large numbers of the protesters were given money to attend.
Numerous “red shirt” protesters are members and grassroots leaders of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). UNMO is the dominant party in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. The party has been in power for the past 57 years. The government reserves numerous economic and other advantages for Muslim Malays.
The rally organisers include the former chief minister of Melaka, Mohamed Ali Rustam, and special affairs department chief Fuad Zakarshi. Jamal Yunus is an an UMNO divisional leader.
UMNO denies being behind yesterday’s protest, but the main organiser, the National Silat Federation (Pesaka), which is a martial arts organisation, is spearheaded by UMNO leaders. Mohamed Ali Rustam is the federation’s president.
The organisers had pledged that yesterday’s rally would be peaceful, but there has been criticism of the protest from both sides of the political divide, and concern that the demonstration would be provocative, and increase racial tension.
The rally took place on Malaysia Day, a national holiday in commemoration of the founding of the Malaysian federation in 1963.
Headline photo (water cannon) by Nazmin Nazin.
Article updated at 2 a.m. 17/09/2015