Defying Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s crackdown on dissent, student activists made plans for a mass rally on Saturday to call for the arrest of an unnamed official who US investigators say received $700 million skimmed from a sovereign fund.
A source familiar with the US investigations has told Reuters that the unnamed official is Najib, though he has denied any wrongdoing in the scandal that first erupted over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) last year.
The planned protest in Kuala Lumpur comes at a time when Najib has tightened his grip on the ruling party, and wielded draconian security and sedition laws to cow critics in the mainstream political opposition and stifle free speech by suspending media groups and blogs.
Najib’s government was jolted in July, when US prosecutors filed several civil lawsuits over money allegedly defrauded from 1MDB. The lawsuits repeatedly referred to a high ranking official, only identified as “Malaysian Official 1”, who received more than $700 million of the misappropriated funds.
The organisers of the planned rally have seized on that description to call the government to account.
“To Malaysian Official 1, you will not be able to run away from the people’s power. Wherever you hide, the people’s power will catch you and drag you to face justice,” Anis Syafiqah Md Yusof, a student representative, said at a press conference earlier this week.
The students plan to gather at Dataran Merdeka, or Independence Square, defying warnings from the country’s police chief to stay away from the square, where Najib supporters also plan to hold a counter-rally, raising the risk of clashes.
“Let this rally be the starting point for us to reignite our spirits,” the organisers said in a statement on Friday.
Earlier this month, a new National Security Council Act came into force, giving Najib sweeping security powers that some critics say could be used to disallow protests.
The last time students held mass rallies was in 2014, when a lecturer with the law faculty of the University of Malaya (UM) – the country’s oldest university – was charged with sedition.
Opposition parties and civil society groups, including democracy watchdog Bersih 2.0, have voiced support for Saturday’s student protest.
Tens of thousands of protesters joined a rally organised by Bersih last year, demanding Najib’s resignation over 1MDB. Earlier this month, the group said it plans another rally, but has still to say where and when.