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Malaysian police add pepper-spray machine guns to anti-protest arsenal as thousands demand Najib Razak's resignation

Sydney Morning Herald - November 19, 2016

Lindsay Murdoch, Bangkok Thousands of protesters took to the streets of the Malaysian capital on Saturday, defying a police ban and crackdown on pro-democracy activists, to demand the resignation of scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Police added pepper-spray projectiles fired from high-powered weapons to their arsenal of water cannons and tear gas in preparation for one of the biggest challenges to Mr Najib's rule since he was accused of embezzling billions of dollars from a state fund he set up and helped administer.

Maria Chin Abdullah, the leader of Bersih, a coalition of almost 100 groups campaigning for electoral reform and against corruption, told Fairfax Media before being arrested on Friday that the protesters could only rely on the police to protect them against a counter pro-government group that vowed to disrupt the protest.

"We have security but it's insufficient when faced against gangsters," she said.

Bersih organisers asked some of its protesters to sit down when they were blocked by police backed by water cannons on a main street of the capital. Other groups marched through to the city.

Earlier, men wearing red T-shirts threw water bottles at and heckled Bersih supporters eating lunch in a restaurant.

The online news site Malaysiakini estimated the Bersih protesters numbered about 14,000 by lunchtime Saturday. It said there were about 4000 red-shirts on the streets.

Earlier Jamal Yunos, the leader of a rightist group known as the Red Shirts, warned ominously that "anything can happen, including violence" at the protest. Human rights activists describe the Red Shirts as "thugs for hire".

Mr Jamal has made bizarre claims against Bersih, including that the coalition had been infiltrated by Islamic State terrorists. Mr Jamal was arrested at a hotel early on Saturday.

Ms Chin and at least five opposition figures and student leaders were also arrested after Mr Najib uploaded a speech on his website declaring the Bersih protesters "a tool of the opposition".

"Despite the authorities' desperate measures to stop us [the rally] will go on," Bersih tweeted.

Police banned Bersih supporters from taking to the streets despite Ms Chin declaring they would comply with rules of the Peaceful Assembly Act.

Police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said police were prepared for clashes but warned people not to blame the police for any violence. "All parties need to follow the law and don't get angry with us when we take action against those who don't follow the law," he said.

As investigations continue, in at least five countries, into the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, known as 1MDB, Mr Najib's government has become increasingly authoritarian.

A Malaysian court last week sentenced an outspoken member of Malaysia's parliament to 18 months in prison for publicly disclosing information relating to the scandal. The conviction of Rafizi Ramli was slammed by human rights groups who said Malaysians have a right to know about corruption.

"These arrests are the latest in a series of crude and heavy-handed attempts to intimidate Malaysian civil society activists and other human rights defenders," said Amnesty International's Josef Benedict.

Mr Najib, 62, has been under fire since July last year when the Wall Street Journal published documents showing that almost US$700 million turned up in his private bank accounts. He denies any wrongdoing.

The US Justice Department has said it is investigating US$1 billion of assets purchased in the US with funds that were allegedly embezzled from 1MDB. The department said a figure it called "Malaysian official 1" knowingly received huge sums from 1MDB. A Malaysian cabinet official has since confirmed that official was Mr Najib.

However as Malaysia's biggest financial scandal unfolded Mr Najib has shut down his country's investigations into the fund, removed critics from government, closed several media outlets and enacted tough security laws in a sweeping crackdown that analysts say has endangered an already fragile democracy.

Mr Najib, who has had close ties to successive Australian governments, has in the meantime shored up support in his party, the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation, where officials have for decades benefited from money politics.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/malaysian-police-add-pepperspray-machine-guns-to-antiprotest-arsenal-as-thousands-demand-najib-razaks-resignation-20161119-gst02n.html.

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