UMNO Readies Violence Against Weekend Protests?

The threat of violence by an UMNO-linked coalition of goons against demonstrations set for August 29-30 raises the risk that the party is willing to spill blood in its campaign to save Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's job.

Jamal Md. Yunos, a 41-year-old minor tycoon who says he owns 25 companies is also head of the Kuala Lumpur Petty Traders Action Council, which held a rally on August 25 to threaten violence against anti-Najib protesters. That was followed a day later when he said his “red shirt” followers would train with machetes and swords.

Yunos claims to be seeking peace in the country. He ran in 2013 to become an UMNO division chief in response to a call by Najib to bring younger leaders into the party. He remains a strong UMNO figure said to be aligned with several cabinet ministers. The fact that he is an UMNO stalwart raises questions whether the party is behind the threat to intimidate protesters.

Certainly Najib has pulled out all the other stops in his attempt to forestall investigations and protests over how US$681 million appeared in his personal accounts in 2013, only to have US$650 disappear out a few months later into a private account in Singapore, which was almost immediately closed, an indication that the money has gone somewhere else. Najib is also under fire over his stewardship of the badly mismanaged 1Malaysia Development Bhd., a state-backed investment fund that now faces at least RM27 billion worth of unfunded liabilities, much of it believed to have been stolen.

Spreading scandal

Although Najib has sacked or neutralized almost all of the investigators working on the two scandals, Swiss authorities have opened investigations into money laundering. Complaints have also been filed in the UK and France, asking for probes into banks that handled the funds. Although he has hinted at “foreign conspiracies” out to break up Malaysia’s parliamentary democracy, he has offered no proof. A threat to sue the Wall Street Journal for an article that ran more than a month and a half ago has not materialized.

However, the prime minister has continued to raise the temperature on race relations in the country, telling UMNO division leaders that Malays and UMNO would be “bastardized” if the party is driven from power – read by most people as a shot across the bow at the Chinese-dominated opposition Democratic Action Party, perhaps the most effective unit in the three-party opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Given Malaysia’s decades of delicate race relations since murderous riots in 1969, his comments are regarded as troubling if not frightening to the country’s 22 percent Chinese minority.

Bring in the clowns

With or without Yunos’s Red Shirts – a parallel to Thai anti-government protesters against royalists who wore yellow, as the election-reform NGO Bersih does -- it is unlikely that the planned weekend Bersih rally will uproot any UMNO support despite the anticipated – or rumored – presence of such former UMNO leaders as former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and sacked Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Previous rallies prior to the 2013 general election, which were said to have attracted anywhere between 50,000 and 100,000 protesters, only resulted in the jailing of protest leaders.

On August 25, about 160 “red shirt” demonstrators held what by all appearances was a clownish demonstration of “martial arts,” beating each other with wooden poles and smashing roof tiles while imitating the sounds tigers are said to make.

Yunos told reporters he expects 30,000 activists to demonstrate against the rally called by Bersih, which is scheduled for Kuala Lumpur, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching in East Malaysia. Organizers say they hope to bring out 100,000 activists demanding that Najib leave office.

Yunos’s most recent star turn was in May 2012, when a group of retired soldiers joined a protest he had organized in front of the home of Ambiga Sreenevasan, the former head of Malaysia’s Bar Council, to drop their pants at her. He and a group of traders also held a “burger protest,” claiming losses of up to RM200,000 due to a rally she had organized as then-head of Bersih.

Volunteers?

“All of our participants have been informed of the possibility of assaults and they volunteered to participate because we just want peace in our country,” Yunos told reporters, adding that his group would call off its rally if Bersih canceled its protest.

Malaysian Police have taken increasingly draconian steps against critics, arresting 16 students on August 25 for a sit-in near parliament and charging them under article 124B of the penal code, a nebulously worded amendment against actions detrimental to parliamentary democracy, which carries a potential sentence up to 20 years in prison. Over the weekend, police jailed another 29 people for attempting a protest at a shopping center. That is in vivid contrast to police inaction against Yunos’s demonstration in front of a Sogo department store in which his followers openly threatened violence.