'Malay pride' rally heightens race sensitivities in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR - The Malaysian government warned the Malay organisers of a mass rally getting underway in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to avoid racial slurs and slogans that could raise tensions in the multi-ethnic Southeast Asian nation.

A group called the "Red Shirts" organised the demonstration of support for Prime Minister Najib Razak's government in response to a massive protest held over two days last month that called for Najib's resignation over a graft scandal.

The "Red Shirts" say the anti-government protesters at the rally organised by Bersih, a pro-democracy group, had been mainly ethnic Chinese, and they had insulted the country's Malay leaders.

Thousands of red-shirted demonstrators began to assemble by midday. Police had closed several roads in the city to traffic, while shops and businesses, especially in Chinese-dominated neighborhoods, were shuttered. "We have been silent all this while and they have been criticizing us. So today we want them to realize this, because all this while the Malays have been patient and we have given in for too long," Shahrizul Fazli, a 43-year-old Malay man, told Reuters as he stood with his companions. "We want them to remember our presence." Police say about 90,000 people were expected to participate in the demonstration.

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said no banners or posters containing "sensitive words" should be displayed during the rally. "The police will seize such banners and posters. We will take action like we did during the Bersih rally," he was quoted saying by The Star newspaper.

Haunted by memories of race riots in 1969, ethnicity and religion are extremely sensitive issues in a country where Malay Muslims make up about 60 percent of the 30 million population, ethnic Chinese about 25 percent and ethnic Indians about 7 percent.

Regardless of what the "Red Shirts" say, some of the strongest calls for Najib's ouster have come from fellow Malays.

Veteran former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who led Malaysia and dominated the ruling United Malays National Organisation for more than two decades until his retirement in 2003, has been at the forefront of the campaign against Najib, and participated in the Bersih protest.

Mahathir, along with other political leaders, has denounced the "Red Shirts" rally, taking place on a day commemorating the founding of the Malaysian federation in 1963.

The rally received encouragement from other factions within UMNO, and Najib has struck a permissive stance without actually endorsing the "Red Shirts".

Najib is fighting to shore up support for his leadership, after becoming the focus of allegations of graft and financial mismanagement at indebted state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).