Thousands of Malaysians have made their way back to the center of the capital, assembling again in an illegal demonstration to call for the resignation of the prime minister, Najib Razak, who is battling the fallout from a financial scandal.
Some people in the 34-hour protest had slept in the streets overnight in an unusually calm demonstration of public outrage by the group Bersih, a coalition of non-governmental organizations, which means “clean” in Malay.
This is the fourth demonstration by the group and previous attempts have been met with arrests and teargas. But as of Sunday, the authorities said nobody was in detention and police at the front of the rally stood behind railings looking bored.
Najib is facing calls to resign after reports that he pocketed nearly $700 million (£456 million) from the debt-laden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
1MDB was launched in 2009 by Najib, who still chairs its advisory board. Critics say he has been opaque in explaining its dealings. Cabinet ministers later tried to explain that the money was political donations from people in the Middle East but the muddied reasoning has only served to further enrage Malaysians.
The government has said the protests are illegal and has gone as far as banning anyone wearing yellow clothing – the signature colour of Bersih – or handing out printed material linked to it. The group’s website has been blocked.
Najib said the protesters were unpatriotic. “Don’t they understand, are they that shallow and poor in their patriotism and love for their motherland?” he was quoted as saying by national news agency Bernama. “Don’t they understand the country was built on the blood and sweat of our freedom fighters?”
The protest is due to end on Sunday at midnight. It is an expression of anger against what the group calls “one of the greatest multibillion-dollar corruption scandals in Malaysia’s history and the government’s most oppressive crackdowns on free speech.”
The prime minister says he is innocent of allegations that he has taken money. Yet he has sacked four ministers, his attorney general and deputy prime minister in an attempt to disarm his critics. A crackdown on dissent has also seen the blocking of two newspapers and a British-based whistleblowing website run by the sister-in-law of former British prime minister Gordon Brown.
The botched attempt to stifle expression has only further angered Malaysians, who have also suffered the implementation of a goods and services tax this year as well as a devaluation in the local ringgit currency to a 17-year low.
The streets at the protest were a sea of yellow. One man carried an effigy of Najib in a cage. Others carried signs saying “impeach the dirty PM”. Vendors sold yellow Guy Fawkes masks made popular by the Anonymous movement. And many people had helium balloons of Minions – characters from the feature film of the same name – as they are coloured yellow.
Bersih said there were 200,000 protesters at the rally’s peak although the police disputed the number. People were still arriving on Sunday.
Some protesters who spoke to the Guardian said they were dismayed by the absence of the country’s majority Malay Muslims at the protest, pointing out that most of the attendees were Chinese Malaysians and other minorities.
The prime minister’s party, the United Malays National Organisation, has been in power coalitions since 1957 in the elective monarchy. It has championed racial laws that favour Malay Muslims who have historically not been as successful in business as their ethnic-Chinese compatriots.
“There is a low number of Muslims. There is a Chinese majority from my viewpoint,” said Praba Gauesan, who runs an NGO that tries to increase political engagement by Malaysians.
He said Bersih had missed a “huge opportunity” to mobilise Malay Muslims by focusing on the resignation of a Malay Muslim prime minister and not anger shared by most Malaysians over the cost of living. “There was a large number of people ready to protest,” he said. “But they focused instead on moral righteousness.”
Najib has lost Malay Muslim allies, importantly his former mentor and Malaysia’s leader of 22 years, Mahathir Mohamad, who visited the protest camp on Saturday night to screaming and elated crowds.
Mahathir commands respect in the country of 30 million and has called for a vote of no confidence against Najib, accusing him of halting an investigation into corruption and buying politicians. Najib dismissesd the request as “political sabotage”.
Najib’s patience could run thin on Sunday as the protest is located right on the edge of Merdeka (Independence) Square, where National Day celebrations are due to be held. “We want to celebrate independence, there are some people who want to show their feelings at the historic place in Merdeka Square,” he said.
Bersih organisers have asked people not to try to breach police lines. They say they will have more than a thousand trained crowd managers present and organisers clearly marked, as well as professional medics, to avoid chaos.
The group said in a statement: “We have spoken with the police. We have reminded them of their obligations under law and their previous failings.”