KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Tens of thousands of Malaysian Muslims rallied on Saturday in Kuala Lumpur against any attempt to deprive the Malaysian majority of their privileges at the first massive street rally since Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's alliance with won a historic vote in May.
The rally, supported by the country's two largest Malay opposition parties, initially aimed to protest the government's plan to ratify an American treaty against racial discrimination. Critics argue that the ratification of the treaty would end Malay privileges as part of a positive policy of action several decades old. The ratification plan was finally abandoned, but the organizers decided to proceed with what they called a "thanksgiving" rally.
Mahathir said the government had allowed the rally as part of democracy, but warned against chaos. The protest was held under strict police security conditions, but ended peacefully after the rain.
Former Prime Minister Najib Razak, accused of several counts of corruption, was one of the opposition deputies at the rally.
Police said that there were at least 55,000 people on the streets. Many wore white T-shirts and headbands with the words "Reject ICERD", referring to the US treaty – the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
The rally participants gathered in three locations before heading to a nearby historic square, chanting "Long live the Malays" and "Crush ICERD".
"Yes, we have not ratified ICERD, but we are still here to say that we are still against it," said trader Rosli Ikhsan. "Even though the government has said it will not approve, we are still protesting with all our might from all over Malaysia."
Mahathir's new government won a landslide victory in a May 9 general election over a corruption scandal involving Najib and his government, but many Malays continue to support Najib's party, the United Malays National Organization. and the Malaysian Islamic Party, which controls two of the country's 13 states.
Some analysts have claimed that Najib and his party were taking advantage of this rally to deflect corruption charges against Najib, his wife, his party's president, and former government officials.
"For me, ICERD is bad," said Nurul Qamariah, a student at the university, at the rally. This is bad because it will erode the position of the Malays. It's a country for the Malays. We want the Malays to be superior, but why do these people want the Malays to be at the same level as the Chinese and the Indians?
Racial clashes have been rare in multi-racial Malaysia since the deadly riots of 1969. A year later, Malaysia introduced a preferential program giving the Malays access to employment, education and contract benefits. and housing to reduce the wealth gap with the Chinese minority. Native Malays make up nearly two-thirds of the country's 32 million people, with significant Chinese and Indian minorities.
Saturday's protest took place less than two weeks after the arrest of more than 80 people during a riot in an Indian temple in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. The government was quick to point out that the violence was due to land conflict and was not a racial riot. Nevertheless, the government warned Saturday's rally participants to make no provocative statements that could stir up racial tensions.
Video reporter Syawalludin Zain of the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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