Malaysia braces for pro-democracy protests amid crackdown on dissent

A major demonstration is slated to occur on Saturday in the Southeast Asian nation, whose prime minister is accused of financial scandals.

Lim Huey Teng/AP
Pro-democracy activists wave 'Bersih 5' flags in Sekinchan, Malaysia, on Oct. 15, 2016. Malaysian pro-democracy activists have vowed to go ahead with a massive rally on Saturday, Nov. 19, to demand Prime Minister Najib Razak's resignation over a financial scandal, despite a police ban and fears of clashes with a pro-government group.

A major pro-democracy and anti-corruption protest is set to take place in the capital of Malaysia on Saturday, a response to what critics see as an increasingly authoritarian government.

The protesters call for the resignation of the nation’s prime minister, Najib Razak, who is under investigation for financial scandals involving a national wealth. But Mr. Razak has denied all allegations, and has drawn criticism for cracking down on media, civil society organizations, and opposing politicians who question his innocence.

“Najib’s latest crackdown on the freedom of the press is all about trying to eliminate views that challenge pro-government narratives in the government-controlled print media, TV, and radio,” Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told Time. “Evidently, the government’s idea is: if we can’t stop opposition party members and civil society activists from saying things they don’t like, we can make it harder for people to hear them.”

Malaysia, a developing country that burst into the global economy in the 1990s, was seen as one of the Asian miracles that heralded economic and democratic progress in the region. But some are worried that the country is failing to uphold democratic principles as politicians hold onto power and prohibit dissent – a concern that spills over to its neighboring countries facing similar challenges.

“At the end of the day, it’s the people’s power that will create change,” Maria Chin Abdullah, the chairperson of the protest coalition, told Time. “We’re not here to fight the government – this is not about a war. This is exerting our fundamental right to speak out.”

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, called “Bersih,” is led by several civil society groups. Saturday’s demonstration will be their fourth rally since 2007, with the 2015 event seeing a crowd of up 50,000 people, according to police estimates reported by the Associated Press. A counter-rally supporting the government is expected to demonstrate on the same day.

Investigations into the wealth fund, called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), were initiated over claims that Razak had embezzled and laundered its funds. The US Justice Department launched the largest single action under the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative in July, seeking recovery of more than $1 billion in assets connected to the fund.

In the weeks leading up to the planned demonstrations, a Malaysian opposition publication was expected to be charged with uploading content that authorities claim is “offensive in nature.” An opposition politician was sentenced to 18 months in jail earlier this week for publicly disclosing an audit investigating the national wealth fund. The protest organizers’ office was raided on Friday, under suspicions that the protesters plan to “topple the government and the prime minister.”

“We have seen this [uprising] happening in many countries. Even the so-called Arab Spring was heralded as an era of change, but instead it caused misery to the people in the countries concerned,” Mr. Razak said in response to the planned protest, as reported by regional publication Benar News. “The best time is to decide when the time comes. There will be an election and people can make their choice and we will abide by the decision of the rakyat [people]. And that’s important.”

This occurs as Malaysia's neighbors are also struggling to define democracy amid power struggles. Hong Kong, for instance, recently saw massive protests over China's interference into its legislative processes; Thailand saw a military coup in 2014 that overthrew an unpopular but democratically elected government; Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whose election was credited with ending decades-long military rule, is now being criticized for yielding to the strong military powers and staying silent on human rights abuses in Rakhine.

Mr. Robertson, who has been outspoken in his opposition toward Razak and other leaders in Southeast Asia, expressed concern about the state of human rights in the region, especially with the United States’ potentially weakening role as a watchdog.

“The clearest beneficiaries from a [Donald] Trump presidency may well be rights abusing leaders in Asia,” he told regional publication Southeast Asia Globe, “ranging from Cambodian and Malaysian Prime Ministers Hun Sen and Najib Razak, to Philippine President Duterte, and even North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, who have all expressed their support because they think Donald Trump will toss out the practice of making human rights concerns a core element of US foreign policy.”

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