Updated: 05/01/2014 20:07 | By Agence France-Presse

Malaysian protesters denounce government in May Day rally

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

Malaysian protesters denounce government in May Day rally

Protesters carry a Malaysian flag through the crowd during a May Day rally at Independence square in Kuala Lumpur on May 1, 2014 - by Manan Vatsyayana

The demonstration in central Kuala Lumpur was held to mark International Labour Day, and the primary target of the red-clad, vuvuzela-blowing protesters was the goods and services tax taking effect in April 2015.

Economists have lauded the expected six percent tax as a step towards reducing one of Asia's highest debt-to-GDP ratios, but the opposition warns it will burden ordinary consumers.

But rally speakers also let loose with a barrage of other criticisms against Malaysia's long-governing coalition, which is widely accused of cronyism, corruption and stifling free expression, and is under global scrutiny over the still-unexplained loss of the Malaysia Airlines jet. 

"We are gathered to fight against the systematic oppression of the people. National resources are being used to enrich cronies," Anwar told the crowd, estimated by local media at around 20,000.

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

Free pending appeal, Anwar calls it an attempt by the government to wreck his political career.

"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 cheering crowd.

The government has been tight-lipped about its investigation into what happened to flight MH370, adding to the anger and frustration of relatives of the 239 people aboard the plane.

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. A challenging and costly Australian-led search has failed to find any wreckage.

"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 government, which denies hiding anything, was due Thursday to release a preliminary report on the plane's disappearance, while it continues with a full investigation.

The crowd began dispersing late in the afternoon as the rally ended.

The demonstration was smaller and more peaceful than previous large-scale rallies staged in the capital in recent years to vent rising impatience with the government dominated by the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Those rallies ended in violent clashes with police, but no violence was reported on Thursday.

Inflation remains relatively mild in Malaysia but has risen, from 2.1 percent for full-year 2013 to 3.4 percent in the first quarter of 2014 after the government cut some subsidies to address the growing deficit.

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