Malaysian police fired water cannons at ethnic Malays who turned unruly Wednesday at a rally to uphold Malay dominance and support Prime Minister Najib Razak\’s government, following calls for Najib to step down over a $700 million financial scandal.
Hundreds of protesters pelted riot police with plastic bottles and tried to push their way through barricades into Kuala Lumpur\’s Chinatown, shouting "This is Malay land." Riot police then fired chemical-laced water to disperse the crowd.
The rally, which included Cabinet members and leaders from Najib\’s ruling Malay party, was held to counter a protest in late August by tens of thousands of Malaysians to demand Najib\’s ouster and political reforms. Wednesday\’s protesters accused ethnic Chinese of driving last month\’s demonstration.
A nation of 30 million, Malaysia is predominantly Malay Muslim, a group that forms the core of the ruling party\’s support. The country also has significant Chinese and Indian minorities who have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the government in recent years.
Malaysian authorities had been concerned that Wednesday\’s rally would become racially charged, but allowed it to proceed anyway, warning protesters against carrying banners or posters with sensitive racial overtones.
Most of the thousands taking part in the protest rallied peacefully at a central field near Parliament.
The demonstrators blew horns and chanted "Long live the Malays" as they marched from several locations in Kuala Lumpur to the field. Some carried banners that read, "People unite to defend the government of the people\’s choice."
"I am here to defend Malay dignity and dominance," said Rahamah Abdul Majid, one of the protesters. "We must not let others take over our country."
Deputy Trade Minister Ahmad Maslan, who is also information chief in Najib\’s United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, told local media that he joined the rally as a "show of support for the government" amid challenges including the local currency\’s sharp plunge. The Malaysian ringgit is down 26 percent from a year earlier, breaching 4 ringgit to the dollar last month, its weakest level in 17 years.
Najib, who came to power in 2009, did not openly endorse the rally, but has said he would not stop UMNO members from joining.
The prime minister has been fighting for political survival after leaked documents in July showed he received some $700 million in his private accounts from entities linked to indebted state fund 1MDB.
He later said the money was a donation from the Middle East and fired his deputy, who was critical of him, four other Cabinet members and the attorney general investigating him. He is also saddled with allegations of mismanagement at 1MDB.
Najib has vowed he won\’t quit and said Malaysia is not a failed state.