August 28, 2015 / 5:13 PM / 2 years ago

Weekend of protests set to pile more pressure on Malaysia's PM

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak is pictured during the 19th Annual Leaders Consultation at Nurul Iman Palace in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, August 11, 2015.Ahim Rani

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters are expected to march through Malaysia's capital on Saturday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has weathered public outrage over a multi-million-dollar payment made to a bank account under his name.

Security will be tight for the rally, which is due to run until Sunday evening, and a news portal reported that the army may intervene if the crowds get out of hand and a state of emergency is declared.

A military spokesman declined to comment on the report.

Kuala Lumpur authorities rejected an application by pro-democracy group Bersih for a permit to protest, setting the stage for a possible showdown with security forces. Police used water cannon and teargas to disperse protesters at Bersih's last big rally in 2012.

The activist group has also called for rallies in the cities of Kota Kinabalu and Kuching on the Malaysian side of Borneo.

The Eurasia Group consultancy said this week the movement would not topple the government and was unlikely to inspire broad public support because it lacked strong leadership from a credible opposition figure.

"The rally will register as a big protest. But in terms of actual change, I don't think anything will happen immediately," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

The director of independent pollster Merdeka Center, Ibrahim Suffian, said discontent with Najib, who took office in 2009, is concentrated in urban areas and a national survey this month showed a slight majority were opposed to the rally.

The 62-year-old leader ran into trouble in July when it was reported that investigators looking into alleged mismanagement at debt-laden state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) had traced a payment of more than $600 million to an account under his name.

Malaysia's anti-graft agency has since verified the funds were a donation from the Middle East, which came just before a 2013 election. On Aug. 3, it said it would ask Najib to explain why the donation was deposited into his private account.

The prime minister's fiercest critic, former leader Mahathir Mohamad, this week said he did not believe the money was a donation and called again for Najib to go.

Najib, who has denied wrongdoing and says he did not take any money for personal gain, has not only ridden out the storm, he has tightened his grip on power through a series of deft steps to sideline would-be dissenters.

He sacked his deputy and other ministers who had publicly questioned him, and the attorney-general who was investigating 1MDB was replaced. Authorities suspended two newspapers and blocked access to a website that had reported on 1MDB.

Najib retains significant support from the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and from within his party, United Malays National Organisation.

The party, which has been in power since 1957, lost the popular vote for the first time in 2013 to an opposition alliance that split this year.

On Friday, Bersih's website was blocked.

"They are infringing on the rights of the people to have access to information," said Maria Chin Abdullah, Bersih's chairwoman. "We are not there to create trouble."

Editing by John Chalmers and Robert Birsel

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