Updated: November 21, 2016 08:56 AM GMT
"Yellow shirts" attend a rally by the leading reformist group Bersih, calling for the resignation of Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 19. (Photo by AFP)
Tens of thousands of yellow-clad Malaysians — including leaders from opposition political parties — flooded the streets of Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 19 to protest against Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The Bersih 5 rally, organized by electoral reform group Bersih 2.0, saw up to 15,000 demonstrators take to the streets to demand that Najib resign as prime minister over his alleged involvement in a multi-million dollar global misappropriation scandal involving taxpayers' money.
The carnival-like atmosphere lasted eight hours, with protestors starting at various locations in the city before they converged on the iconic Petronas Twin Towers in the heart of the Malaysia's capital.
This was after their plans to converge on Independence Square was thwarted by thousands of police officers.
Demonstrators carried placards displaying caricatures of the prime minister and his wife and even chanted, to the tune played by a nearby drum troupe, about wanting him behind bars.
"Our leaders have cheated the people, they've stolen our money. Even our currency has fallen so badly," said Azman, 55, after he had made a six-hour bus ride for the protest from the southern state of Johor.
"For us in rural areas, we really feel it. Our income isn't very high, so when the price of goods go up, we really feel the pinch," he said.
"The government doesn't want to help us any more so we want a change in leadership, the prime minister must change."
Najib has been accused of stealing money from taxpayers after the Wall Street Journal reported last year that approximately $700 million from state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a brainchild of the prime minister, had been diverted into the his personal bank account.
Najib's reputation was further damaged when the U.S. Department of Justice filed lawsuits in July stating that 1MDB had misappropriated $3.5 billion, with some of the funds allegedly having gone to an individual only identified as "Malaysian Official 1." Both U.S. and Malaysian officials have claimed Najib is Malaysian Official 1.
Prominent civil liberties lawyer Mohamed Hanif Khatri Abdulla said that Najib should realize that enough is enough.
"It doesn't take a genius to know that what he's done is wrong. He owes it to the people to resign," said the lawyer.
Najib has also be blamed for the slump in the Malaysian ringgit after it clocked in at 4.39 against the dollar as of Nov. 17, marking its lowest point all year.
On top of that, Malaysians have also been struggling with a rise in the cost of living following the removal of petrol subsidies and the implementation of a new tax scheme last year.
The government now has plans to remove cooking oil subsidies in 2017, which will further drive up living costs.
A sales manager at the protest, who wanted to be identified as Chris, said political changes need to occur.
"There is a lot of unfairness and corruption and general unhappiness with the way things are being run and with things like 1MDB," said Chris. "Everyone is unhappy and some change needs to take place, that's why we are here," said the 26-year-old.
"People are angry with the economy, the general unfair treatment of the people and the political parties. People are angry."
Najib condemned the demonstration.
"Their movement is deceitful," Najib said in a speech published on his website Nov. 18.
"It is clear that these street protests are in fact the opposition disguised as an independent NGO working to unseat a democratically elected government," he added.
As part of Najib's tactics to stay in power he has reshuffled the cabinet and fired ministers who have spoken out against him.
The Najib administration has cracked downed on media and civil society in a bid to maintain control over the government. They have imprisoned dissenters over allegations of sedition and charged local media organizations who cast the government in a negative light.
A day before the rally began, 11 activists, including the organizer of the Bersih 5 rally Maria Chin Abdullah, were arrested over various charges ranging from rioting to "activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy." Another two activists were arrested during the rally the next day.
Feared clashes with a pro-government group the "red shirts" failed to materialize on protest day.