Tens of thousands of Malaysian Muslims rallied Saturday in Kuala Lumpur against any attempt to strip the ethnic Malay majority of its privileges, in the first massive street gathering since Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s alliance won a historic vote in May.

The rally, backed by the country’s two largest opposition Malay parties, was initially aimed at protesting a government plan to ratify a U.N. treaty against racial discrimination. Critics allege that ratifying the treaty would end Malay privileges under a decades-old affirmative action policy. The plan to ratify was eventually abandoned, but organizers decided to proceed with what they called a “thanksgiving” rally.

Protesters gather for a rally near a mosque to celebrate the government's move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Protesters gather for a rally near a mosque to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Racial clashes have been rare in multiracial Malaysia since deadly riots in 1969. A year later, Malaysia instituted a preferential program that gives Malays privileges in jobs, education, contracts and housing to help narrow a wealth gap with the minority Chinese. Ethnic Malays account for nearly two-thirds of the country’s 32 million people, with large Chinese and Indian minorities.

Protesters attend a rally to celebrate the government's move to withdraw plans to ratify a U.N. anti-discrimination convention at Independent Square in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday, Dec. (AP Photo/Yam G-Jun)
Protesters attend a rally to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U.N. anti-discrimination convention at Independent Square in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday, Dec. (AP Photo/Yam G-Jun)

Saturday’s rally came less than two weeks after more than 80 people were arrested in a riot at an Indian temple in a suburb outside Kuala Lumpur. The government was quick to stress that the violence was due to a land dispute and was not a racial riot. Still, the government warned Saturday’s rally-goers not to make any provocative statements that could fan racial tensions.

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak arrives for a rally to celebrate the government's move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Former Prime Minister Najib Razak arrives for a rally to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Mahathir said the government allowed the rally as part of democracy, but warned against any chaos. The rally was held under tight police security, but ended peacefully after rain started to fall.

Former Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak departs with protesters to attend a rally to celebrate the government's move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Yam G-Jun)
Former Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak departs with protesters to attend a rally to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Yam G-Jun)

Former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been charged with multiple counts of corruption, was among opposition lawmakers at the rally.

Thousands of protesters take a part in a rally to celebrate the government's move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Yam G-Jun)
Thousands of protesters take a part in a rally to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Yam G-Jun)

Police said there were at least 55,000 people on the streets. Many wore white T-shirts and headbands with the words “Reject ICERD,” referring to the U.N. treaty — the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

The protesters gathered at three locations before marching to a nearby historic square, chanting “Long live the Malays” and “Crush ICERD.”

Thousands of protesters gather for a rally to celebrate the government's move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Thousands of protesters gather for a rally to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

“Yes, we did not ratify ICERD, but we are still here to say that we are still against it,” said shopkeeper Rosli Ikhsan. “Even if the government has said they won’t endorse it, we are still protesting with all our might from all of Malaysia.”

A protester covers his face with headbands reading
A protester covers his face with headbands reading “No to ICERD” during a rally to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Mahathir’s new government won a stunning victory in a May 9 general election amid anger over a massive corruption scandal involving Najib and his government, but many Malays still support Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organization, and the Malaysian Islamic Party, which controls two of the country’s 13 states.

Thousands of protesters gather during a rally to celebrate the government's move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Thousands of protesters gather during a rally to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Some analysts say Najib and his party were using the rally to shift attention away from corruption charges against Najib, his wife, his party’s president and former government officials.

Protesters hold a banner during a rally to celebrate the government's move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Protesters hold a banner during a rally to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

“For me, ICERD is bad,” university student Nurul Qamariah said at the rally. “It’s bad because it will erode the position of Malays. This is a country for Malays. We want Malays to be superiors, but why do these people want to make Malays the same level as Chinese and Indians?”

Thousands of protesters gather for a rally to celebrate the government's move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Thousands of protesters gather for a rally to celebrate the government’s move to withdraw plans to ratify a U. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

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Source: The Associated Press