It’s difficult to say just how many Malaysians flooded the streets of Kuala Lumpur during the last weekend of August 2015 — by some estimates, 200,000, most of them dressed in the shade of canary yellow that has become the de facto hue of the global pro-democracy movement. They were there to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who had allegedly embezzled nearly $700 million in cash from a suffering state-development fund called 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB. (Najib has consistently denied the allegations.)
The protest, organized by a confederation of pro-democracy and anticorruption activists known as Bersih (which in Malay means clean), was one of Malaysia’s largest public gatherings in recent memory, and certainly the most spirited. “Malaysia is literally the perfect country … and it’s been completely spoiled by corruption and money politics,” one protester said at the time. “We’re finally tired of it.”
That was 15 months ago. This weekend, Bersih will reconvene, in Kuala Lumpur and in Malaysian communities around the world. But if the demonstration in 2015 was an exemplification of the democratic spirit — defiant, outspoken, responsibly optimistic — this weekend’s protests will likely demonstrate the frustration of that spirit when its ambitions are deferred. Najib is still in power, and is in fact more powerful than ever: as public opposition to his leadership has escalated, his government has cracked down on Malaysia’s civil society, jailing his critics and blocking access to websites that publish controversial information.
Many Malaysians who participated enthusiastically last year will simply stay home: some say they are pessimistic about the prospect of changing a system they see as irrevocably corrupt; others worry about the consequences of publicly airing their political grievances in an increasingly autocratic society. Several individuals who were once eager to discuss the movement have anxiously asked not to be quoted.
“There is a bit of lethargy, and people do give up quite easily,” says Maria Chin Abdullah, the 60-year-old activist who serves as Bersih’s chairperson. Earlier this week, the World Organization for Torture made note of the number of death threats she has received in the weeks leading up to the protests. “But we’ve achieved quite a lot — electoral awareness, bringing people together — and we have to fight it out.”
On Friday night, local media reported that Chin Abdullah was arrested and charged with engaging in “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”
It was not supposed to be this way. Malaysia’s emergence on the global economic and industrial stage in the past decades of the 20th century was one of the great Asian miracles, and the democratization of its politics and society was supposed to be the logical next step. Specifically, Najib was supposed to be the one to lead that change. When he took office in 2009, he spoke in lofty terms about things like multiculturalism: a breath of fresh air in Malaysia, where society is fragmented along its ethnic Malay, Indian, and Chinese populations. He promised economic betterment after years of a lull in growth.
But the story of democracy in 21st-century Asia has been a story of broken promises — look at Thailand, or Hong Kong — and under Najib, Malaysia has become yet another example of this. His party, the increasingly right-wing United Malays National Front (UMNO), has pushed for reinforcements of policies that offer education and employment benefits for the bumiputra, as the Malay majority is called, at the expense of the Chinese and Indian communities — reverse affirmative action, as it were. Najib pledged to reverse Malaysia’s draconian security laws and has done precisely the opposite, imposing regulations that allow his government to effectively suspend constitutional civil liberties.
“There is no question whatsoever that Najib’s government has become more dictatorial and repressive,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells TIME. “It’s incredible how far and how fast the human-rights situation in Malaysia has deteriorated.” (Najib, meanwhile, has advised the West to “stop lecturing countries they once exploited.”)
Popular disenchantment escalated into outrage in early July 2015, when the Wall Street Journal and the London-based investigative website Sarawak Report reported that Najib’s personal bank accounts held $700 million in dubious cash — cash, it was believed, that had been transferred from the fund known as 1MDB, a pet project of Najib’s launched in 2009 ostensibly in the interest of economic stimulation. A later report from the Journal later put the sum of the loot at upwards of $1 billion.
It is quantitatively one of the biggest corruption scandals in modern history. In their reporting, the Journal and Sarawak Report have outlined a money trail that spans the globe and implicates a host of parties from Hong Kong to Switzerland to Manhattan to Hollywood. The money is believed to have been used to bankroll Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, which Najib’s stepson Riza Aziz co-produced. In July, U.S. federal prosecutors announced that they had filed a civil lawsuit to seize assets funded by the money linked to 1MDB in the “largest single action” ever under the Department of Justice’s antikleptocracy initiative.
Najib has ardently denied all allegations of malfeasance — none of which have cracked his armor anyway. Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition to which Najib’s party UMNO belongs, has succeeded in regional elections, despite the public unrest. Najib has manipulated the popular discourse by utterly cracking down on the online media, blocking access to Sarawak Report and the popular publishing platform Medium. The Malaysian Insider, a popular antigovernment news blog, was shuttered in March; on Friday, editors from Malaysiakini, another influential blog that has intensively covered the 1MDB affair, were in court, charged with “intent to annoy.” The Guardian reports that they face up to a year in prison, where they will join Rafizi Ramli, an opposition parliamentarian sentenced on Monday to 18 months for disclosing confidential information regarding 1MDB.
“Najib’s latest crackdown on the freedom of the press is all about trying to eliminate views that challenge progovernment narratives in the government-controlled print media, TV, and radio,” Robertson of Human Rights Watch says. “Evidently, the government’s idea is: if we can’t stop opposition party members and civil society activists from saying things they don’t like, we can make it harder for people to hear them.”
This, the organizers of Saturday’s protest say, is why popular demonstration is now all the more imperative, despite threats from pro-government groups to disrupt the gathering with violence. Bersih’s organizers have spent the past seven weeks traveling to hundreds of locales across Malaysia, encouraging citizens who might otherwise be apathetic to join the fray.
“At the end of the day, it’s the people’s power that will create change,” Chin Abdullah says. “We’re not here to fight the government — this is not about a war. This is exerting our fundamental right to speak out.”