Malaysian protesters denounce government in May Day rally

KUALA LUMPUR - Thousands gathered in Malaysia's capital on Thursday to protest against a planned new tax, but they also took shots at the government's prosecution of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and handling of missing flight MH370.

The demonstration was held to coincide with International Labour Day, and the primary target of the red-clad, vuvuzela-blowing protesters was the goods and services tax (GST) taking effect in April 2015.

The opposition has denounced the GST and recent subsidy cuts as moves by the long-ruling regime to shift the cost of reducing a rising deficit onto ordinary consumers.

But protestors used the occasion to let loose with other criticisms of the government, which is under global scrutiny over its still-unexplained loss of the Malaysia Airlines jet.

"Besides the rise in living costs, we are here to voice our frustration over the search for MH370," said Amani Nasir, 26, a medical student who joined the protest in central Kuala Lumpur.

"There is a lack of transparency and very little information is provided. We want to know the cost involved in the search so far, since it is taxpayers' money."

The Boeing 777 vanished on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing and is now believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean, where a challenging and costly Australian-led search effort has failed to find any wreckage.

The government has been tight-lipped about its investigation into what happened, adding to the anger and frustration of relatives of the 239 people aboard the plane.

The government was due on Thursday to release a preliminary report on its investigation into the plane's disappearance.

Rally participants also denounced a court ruling in March that convicted Anwar of sodomy - illegal in Muslim-majority Malaysia - and sentenced him to five years in jail.

Anwar calls the ruling an attempt by the government to end his political career. He is free pending appeal.

Opposition politicians speaking at the rally denounced the case and called on demonstrators to rise up if Anwar is jailed.

"I want to tell the PM, don't you dare touch Anwar. The people will not allow Anwar to be jailed for even one second," top opposition politician Azmin Ali told the crowd, estimated by local media at around 20,000-strong.

Civil society groups have staged large-scale rallies in Kuala Lumpur in recent years, venting growing public discontent with the government dominated by Prime Minister Najib Razak's ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

No violent incidents were reported so far in Thursday's rally.

UMNO has presided over decades of economic growth, but as growth slows voters have increasingly flocked to the opposition amid anger over persistent corruption, authoritarian tactics, and UMNO's divisive racial politics.

Inflation remains relatively mild in Malaysia but has risen, from 2.1 per cent for all of last year to 3.4 per cent in the first three months of 2014 after the government cut some subsidies to rein in the spiralling budget deficit.