Thousands of Malaysian opposition demonstrators marched in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday against suspected corruption in Prime Minister
Throngs of yellow-clad protesters — the signature color of an electoral reform movement known as Bersih — rallied in defiance of a police ban and what they described as an ongoing campaign of official intimidation.
Demonstration organizer Maria Chin Abdullah, the chairwoman of Bersih, was arrested Friday evening on charges of activity "detrimental to parliamentary democracy." The leader of a rival pro-government group was detained early Saturday, ostensibly to prevent the two sides from clashing on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the capital.
Police blocked access to Kuala Lumpur's main plaza, where protesters hoped to congregate and replicate demonstrations of past years. State news agency Bernama said that 15 people were arrested for "illegal assembly" at what was otherwise a peaceful protest.
The rally was a show of strength by Najib's opponents but looked unlikely to shake his hold on power, which has weakened amid accusations that about $700 million in public money was deposited into bank accounts in his name.
The scandal over a state development fund Najib set up in 2009 has drawn the attention of law enforcement agencies from around the world. The Justice Department alleged in July that "an international conspiracy" helped siphon $3.5 billion from the fund, known as 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB.
Some of the money is alleged to have been used to set up a Hollywood production company led by Najib's stepson that financed, among other films, "The Wolf of Wall Street" — a story of financial corruption. Other purchases linked to the fund include properties in Los Angeles and New York, paintings by Monet and Van Gogh and a $35-million jet.
Najib, who was in Peru on an official visit, has said he never took money "for personal gain" and called the deposits a donation from Saudi Arabia that he mostly repaid.
The corruption scandal has gripped a country that has otherwise been a bulwark of political stability in Southeast Asia, long embraced by the West for its moderate brand of Islam.
Stung by the criticism, Najib has recently played up Malaysia's growing ties with China and castigated Western powers for interfering in former colonies.
In recent months, as calls for his resignation have grown louder, several leading opposition politicians have been charged or jailed on a variety of offenses including sedition and breaches of communications laws.
Among those facing prison was Rafizi Ramli, an opposition lawmaker who joined the demonstration, saying Najib "will try to cling to power because [otherwise] he will go to jail."
Najib's former deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, ousted last year for criticizing the prime minister over the corruption allegations, also joined the opposition alignment and thundered against the government at the rally.
"They steal people's money; they squander our wealth; they sell our pride," Yassin said.
The anti-Najib campaign has gathered momentum with the addition of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's longest serving leader, who addressed the rally in the shadow of the twin 1,483-foot Petronas Towers.
The 91-year-old Mahathir, who led Malaysia for 22 years until 2003, has set up a new party that will run under the opposition banner in the next elections, due by mid-2018.
Malaysia's political opposition has floundered since longtime leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed on sodomy charges and opposition parties squabbled over implementing Islamic criminal punishment in the Muslim-majority country.
A handshake between Anwar and Mahathir in September appeared to signal that Mahathir would help lead a new opposition grouping.
Anwar's daughter, Nurul Izzah, said the legacy of Mohamad's tenure in office — which saw Malaysia modernize into one of Asia's wealthier countries — could draw support from ethnic Malays, who make up about 60% of the nation's 30 million people.
A major antigovernment rally last year was dominated by Malaysians of Chinese descent, who make up about one-quarter of the country.
"Bersih is no longer seen through the lens of race, and that is why Najib is acting with heavy-handedness," she said.
Organizers are probably aware that the demonstration will not unseat the prime minister, according Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
"The challenge that the Bersih rally throws into the ring is a show of defiance, of numbers and of cross-communal teamwork," he said. "More importantly, it will raise the level of enthusiasm and activism that may carry through to election day, and the sense that the battle for change is not over."
Many remain skeptical that the opposition parties can coalesce effectively, given their ethnic and religious differences. Even the presence of Mahathir, whose two decades in office were often marked by the type of authoritarianism he now accuses Najib of, might not unite the disparate factions, some analysts said.
"Many middle-class Malaysians are disappointed [the opposition] joined up with Mahathir," said James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania in Australia.
Chin said the rally was unlikely to seriously undermine Najib.
"As long as there is no violence, Najib looks good," Chin said. "He can claim he was looking after security since [members of] both sides were arrested."
Roughneen is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Dhaka, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.