KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Defying Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's crackdown on dissent, student activists made plans for a mass rally on Saturday (Aug 27) to call for the arrest of an unnamed official who United States investigators say received US$700 million (S$946 million) skimmed from a sovereign fund.
Datuk Seri Najib's government was jolted in July, when US prosecutors filed several civil lawsuits over money allegedly defrauded from 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). The lawsuits repeatedly referred to a high-ranking official, only identified as "Malaysian Official 1", who received more than US$700 million of the misappropriated funds. Mr Najib has denied any wrongdoing in the scandal that first erupted over 1MDB last year.
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," Mr 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.
The planned protest in Kuala Lumpur comes at a time when Datuk Seri 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.
Earlier this month, a new National Security Council Act came into force, giving Mr 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 Mr Najib's resignation over 1MDB. Earlier this month, the group said it plans another rally, but has still to say where and when.