Thousands of Malaysian students took to the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, yesterday (Saturday) to demand the identification and arrest of the unnamed “powerful politician” who is cited in a corruption lawsuit in the United States and is believed to be the Prime Minister, Najib Razak.
Najib is accused of siphoning off huge amounts of public money for his own use, but denies all wrongdoing.
The protesters also demanded the arrest of Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor, his stepson Riza Aziz, and businessman Jho Low. Effigies of all four were put into a mock jail cell at the end of yesterday’s rally.
The “Tangkap MO1” (“Catch MO1”) rally was organised by students and supported by opposition MPs and leading members of civil society, including the chairwoman of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0), Maria Chin Abdullah, and the national laureate, A. Samad Said.
MO1 refers to the unnamed “Malaysian Official 1” cited in the civil lawsuit filed by the US Department of Justice, which is seeking the forfeiture and recovery of more than $1 billion in assets which it says are “associated with an international conspiracy to launder funds misappropriated from a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund”.
It is alleged that, between 2009 and 2015, more than $3.5 billion in funds belonging to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund was misappropriated.
Low and Riza have been named in the US lawsuit, while “Malaysian Official 1” was described as Riza’s “relative” and a powerful politician in Malaysia.
Yesterday’s protest was held next to KL’s Dataran Merdeka (Independence Square). As happens whenever demonstrators want to hold a rally in Dataran Merdeka, the square was cordoned off by the authorities. On this occasion, it was stated that rehearsals were underway for Merdeka Day on August 31.
All of yesterday’s speakers were students. One of them was 24-year-old activist Anis Syafiqah (pictured left), who has become the public face of the Tangkap MO1 protest and is spokeswoman for the Tangkap Malaysian Official 1 coalition, which organised yesterday’s rally.
She said she was worried about the fate of future generations of Malaysians.
“I’m here to fight for those future generations,” Anis said to rousing cheers from the crowd.
Anis, who studies language and linguistics at Universiti Malaya, shot into the public spotlight after making a plea on video for students to attend yesterday’s rally.
The video, in which Anis made an impassioned speech about the nation’s financial scandal, went viral on social media. Anis called on the police to save Malaysians from being swindled and make the country safe for the country’s children.
Anis moved very quickly away from Dataran Merdeka at the end of the Tangkap MO1 rally. Last year, the police frequently made arrests at the end of demonstrations.
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The representative of students from private universities, 23-year-old Sharan Raj, who is a third-year student in electrical engineering, said: “The main message from today’s rally is that the government should know that we are not keeping quiet when it comes to huge corruption and scandals that involve public money. They should receive this message loud and clear and know that if they refuse to act after this, these protests will not stop.
“We will continue until corruption is brought face to face with justice and the people’s wealth is returned to the people.
“Students are fed up of being told that their studies will bring them a better future. Our question is ‘What kind of future is being guaranteed now in Malaysia?’”
Student activist Adam Adli Abdul Halim, who was a leading voice during the #KitaLawan (“We will fight”) rallies last year, said that, for him, the importance of the Tangkap MO1 rally was to see if the next generation was capable of taking over the protest movement. “They have proven their capability and we are so proud of them, and we will always be there to support them,” he said.
At 27, Adam is already a senior figure in the opposition struggle in Malaysia. He is a seasoned activist who has been arrested many times and has years of court battles ahead of him.
Film director, columnist, and stand-up comedian Hishamuddin Rais, however, really is a veteran of the fight for justice in Malaysia. His political and social activism dates back to the 1970s, and he has been detained numerous times in Malaysia and also overseas, in India, Russia, and Australia.
Hishamuddin (pictured left) was also at yesterday’s rally and said he was very proud of the younger generation, who had come out onto the street in their thousands. “I am very happy to see this. Now, everyone is waiting for Bersih 5 that is coming very soon.”
There were varied estimates of yesterday’s turnout, but the organisers put the number at more than 3,000.
‘Anger over kleptocracy’
Maria Chin (pictured left), who is currently barred from leaving Malaysia, and has been charged for participating in a #KitaLawan protest, said: “Today’s rally is important because it’s being led by young people and it’s giving hope to Malaysians that there is still a chance of change. Malaysians are very angry about the kleptocracy that is happening in our country. Millions of ringgits have been stolen.”
None of Malaysia’s institutions are doing anything to remedy the situation, Maria Chin says.
Maria Chin challenges the allegation that the US is trying to undermine or influence Malaysia. “The US is trying to protect its financial institutions; it is nothing to do with exerting foreign influence on Malaysia.”
A major Bersih 5 rally is planned for October, but the exact date has not yet been set.
At least 80,000 people turned out for the 34-hour Bersih 4 protest in August last year.
While local media put the Bersih 4 attendance at about 80,000, the rally organisers said the protest attracted 200,000 people at its peak during the first day. Police put the turnout at about 29,000.
Apart from a reported minor skirmish, yesterday’s rally went off peacefully. At one point a bus driver was cheered for changing his intended route because it was blocked by a sit-down protest.
The organisers of the Tangkap MO1 rally thanked the authorities for not disrupting the protest. “Let’s hope the authorities leave it at that,” tweeted Lawyers for Liberty.