New Year countdown concert ends as protesters linger at Dataran Merdeka

Thousands of protesters rallying against the rising cost of living walk towards Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur, December 31, 2013. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Thousands of protesters rallying against the rising cost of living walk towards Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur, December 31, 2013. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 31 — At the cusp of 2014, thousands of protesters comprising mostly tertiary students rallied against rising cost of living near Dataran Merdeka tonight.

At 11pm, the boisterous crowd made it past several lines of police and DBKL barricades and streamed into the historic square to join the rest of the revellers at the ongoing national new year's eve countdown celebration.

About 30 minutes later, the state-organised concert came to an abrupt end and those attending the celebration left the venue even as protesters continued to linger on, filling up nearly the entire stretch of the square.

Police are keeping vigilance over the crowd but no untoward incidents have so far been reported, despite earlier warnings from the uniformed authorities when protesters tried to breach their barricades.

The rally has so far remained largely student-dominated and peaceful, with no partisan figure addressing the crowd as at 10pm.

However, despite a pledge to stay apolitical, the tone of the crowd appeared largely against the ruling coalition of Barisan Nasional (BN), its component party Umno and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak.

Earlier, most of the crowd congregated in front of the Sogo shopping mall facing the Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman here.

They gathered for almost an hour with leaders from several student movements including Gerakan Mahasiswa Malaysia making their speeches.

A recurrent theme in their speeches was their insistence that tonight's event was not to topple Putrajaya as claimed by the authorities, but to air their dissatisfaction over the spiralling cost of living.

In between the speeches, the crowd chanted “Hidup rakyat, hancur kezaliman” (long live the people, down with tyranny).

They sang the national anthem before making a move to Dataran Merdeka along Jalan Raja Laut just before 10 pm.

Traffic was facilitated by PAS' volunteer group Unit Amal (Charity Unit) as the rally occupied three out of the five lanes on the road, with the police largely absent along the way.

Protesters started gathering at 9pm at several locations around Kuala Lumpur before making their way towards Dataran Merdeka. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Protesters started gathering at 9pm at several locations around Kuala Lumpur before making their way towards Dataran Merdeka. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

Two smaller groups also made their way from Masjid Jamek and Central Market nearby.

The mass protest was planned amid the various increases in the prices of goods and services, some of which have already taken place a few months ago, like the cutting of fuel and sugar subsidies, while other hikes are scheduled for next year, including electricity tariffs, assessment rates for KL properties, public transport charges and toll rates for major highways.

But over the past week, the police have been on high alert after claims circulated online of a demonstration to take down the government, and also of an alleged plot to detonate bombs during the New Year's Eve countdown at Dataran Merdeka. The authorities have since linked the claims to the planned protest.

On Saturday, police listed four non-governmental organisations (NGO) as the key groups allegedly planning to “cause trouble” at the annual do.

They are Gerakan Turun Kos Sara Hidup (Turun), student movement Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia (SMM), PKR-backed group Jingga 13, and youth group Solidariti Anak Muda Malaysia (SAMM).

On Friday, however, Mohamed Bukhairy Sofian, chairman of student movement SMM, reportedly said that its planned gathering at Dataran Merdeka on New Year’s Eve is to protest against the rising cost of living, and not to overthrow the BN government.

Turun chairman Azan Safar had also clarified last week that the price hike protest is not linked to another planned gathering, which allegedly aims to oust the government.

On Christmas Eve, police arrested the leader of an anti-price hike movement over a planned rally at Dataran Merdeka on December 31 that allegedly aimed to overthrow the government.

On Thursday, the owner of a Facebook page was also picked up by the police for allegedly inciting the public to participate in demonstrations on December 31, to topple the government.

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