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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Thousands of Muslims rally to defend rights in Malaysia amid racial tensions

Big crowds gathered in downtown Kuala Lumpur

Tens of thousands of banner-waving Muslims dressed in white rallied in the Malaysian capital on Saturday demanding protection of their rights, at a time of growing racial tensions in the multi-ethnic country.

About 55,000 people dressed in white flooded a historic square in downtown Kuala Lumpur, according to police, chanting "God is great" and waving banners that read "Long live the Malays".

Large numbers of police were on the streets and major roads were closed for the event, which was the first major rally since Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad won a shock election victory in May and toppled the scandal-mired old regime.

Race and religion are sensitive in Malaysia, which is home to sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, and the Muslim Malay majority appears to be feeling increasingly insecure under a new government that is more representative of minorities.

The rally was originally intended as a protest against a plan by the government to ratify a UN convention which aims to eliminate racial discrimination.

Authorities abandoned the plan after opposition from conservative politicians and Malays, who feared the treaty could erode privileges they have long enjoyed.

But Muslim groups pushed ahead with Saturday's demonstration, which alongside the convention has become about the bigger issue of defending Islam and decades-old affirmative action policies that benefit Malays.

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"If Islam is disturbed, if race is disturbed, if our rights are disturbed, then we will rise," opposition leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, whose United Malays National Organisation (Umno) was ousted at this year's election, told the gathering.

"I hope the other races don't challenge the rights of the Malays," protester Arif Hashim, 26, said. "As a Muslim, I want Islam to be the first [priority] in Malaysia."

Among those attending was disgraced former premier Najib Razak, who has been arrested and charged over the scandal surrounding state fund 1MDB since losing power.

Analysts said Umno, which ruled Malaysia for six decades at the head of a coalition, was using the event to divert attention from its troubles. The party, long a champion of the Malays, has been engulfed in scandal and infighting since being ousted. Mr Ahmad Zahid, its new leader, also faces corruption charges.

Malays - who make up about 60 per cent of the country's 32 million people - have been given substantial help, such as financial handouts, for decades but critics argue the system needs reform.

Policies favouring Malays were introduced after riots between members of the Malay and Chinese communities in 1969 that left nearly 200 people dead.