Ethnic edge to Malaysian rally politics
By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's minority Indians ignored warnings issued by Prime
Minister Abdullah Badawi and on Sunday braved tear gas, water cannons and
police batons to protest alleged official discrimination and demand a fairer
share of the national wealth in the capital of Kuala Lumpur.
The mostly ethnic Tamil protesters also called for reparations to the tune of
US$4 trillion from the United Kingdom for sending them to Malaysia as
indentured laborers over a century ago. The protestors also demanded from the
business licenses, better paying jobs, university scholarships and other
privileges reserved exclusively for native Malays.
Their demonstration, the first by ethnic Indians on such large scale since
national independence was achieved in 1957, shut down the city center which is
overlooked by the gleaming Petronas Towers, the capital's landmark, and various
five star hotels and luxury businesses.
Commuters, shoppers and workers ran helter-skelter as teargas canisters rained
on the protesters and gas filled the air. Malaysiakini.com, an opposition
online news provider, put the number of protestors at 20,000, though foreign
news services estimated the number at less than half that total.
Many others were turned away or arrested as they tried to enter into the city
from the interior, said the organizer of the rally, Hindu Rights Action Force,
or HINDRAF. The group was formed in 2005 to fight for Hindu rights. Many
protestors waved the Malaysian flag and carried pictures hung around their
necks of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi to signify the non-violent
nature of their protest.
They also carried banners urging the authorities to let them voice their
grievances peaceably. "We only want to tell you our problems ... don't treat us
like animals," one banner said. "By protesting in large numbers we have shown
that we are not cowed," said lawyer P Uthayakumar, a key HINDRAF leader. "The
government cannot ignore us anymore. We are a force to reckon with," he said,
between dodging tear gas canisters.
Uthayakumar added that HINDRAF would step up its protest to fight for justice,
mostly for poorly paid laborers in factories and giant plantation companies,
who are forced to compete with at least three million foreign workers for
low-paying jobs. An economic slowdown, rising food and fuel prices and foreign
competition for jobs has hurt the ethnic Indians harder than other races,
including the majority ethnic Malays and the Chinese who control most of the
It took police nearly six hours on Sunday to regain control of the city center,
with businesses in the area reporting millions of dollars worth of losses due
to the protest driving shoppers away. Police fired dozens of rounds of tear
gas, baton charged the demonstrators and used water cannons laced with
chemicals, but the demonstrators played a cat and mouse game to keep the police
at bay. Scores of protestors were injured and many were arrested.
Opposition lawmakers condemned the police's alleged excessive use of force
against the demonstrators, who they said had voiced their grievances in a
peaceful manner. "This excessive use of power is completely unjustified," said
opposition leader Lim Kit Siang in a prepared statement. "I hold Prime Minister
Abdullah Badawi personally responsible for the injuries people suffered. The
people will show their rejection of violence in the upcoming polls."
There was also a foreign twist to the melee. The protesters' plan was also to
embarrass the Malaysian government by presenting a memorandum to the British
High Commission here, urging the British government to intervene on their
behalf with the Malaysian authorities. Police closed off all the approaches to
the commission in the diplomatic enclave of Ampang to prevent the protesters
from reaching the compound.
"The British brought our forefathers here 150 years ago. They exploited us and
left us to the mercy of a Muslim majority government," said opposition lawmaker
Kulasegaran Murugesan, who took part in the protest. "They have failed to look
after our welfare. We have a right to voice our grievances."
On Friday, ahead of the rally, police arrested three HINDRAF members on
sedition charges, who if convicted face three years in prison based on laws
dating back to the British colonial era. Ethnic Indians, who make up about 8%
of Malaysia's 26 million population, have long complained that the majority
Malays, using unchecked political power, have kept disproportionately for
themselves employment, education and business opportunities.
"We have been deprived ... we want our fair share," Uthayakumar said. "Not only
are we deprived but our temples are destroyed, our schools neglected and our
people suffer from terrible neglect." Government officials contest such
arguments, saying all ethnic communities get a fair share. But the complaints
have found a receptive audience among the long suffering Tamil masses.
Consider, for instance, the economic plight of ethnic Indian lorry driver
Selvarajah Ramakrishnan. He says he has applied for a driving permit for over
15 years, but has consistently failed to receive one. To drive his vehicle, he
must rent a government driving permit from Malay permit-holders for 400 ringgit
(US$119). He asks: "Why should I have to suffer discrimination in my own
While agreeing that Tamil grievances run deep, some opposition lawmakers and
civil rights activists are also concerned about the religious and ethnic
character of HINDRAF's movement. Opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim described the
protest as an important "safety valve" to let off anger over long simmering
Tamil grievances and urged the government to allow them to protest peacefully.
Anwar also urged HINDRAF's leaders to consider a more balanced and inclusive
approach when addressing Tamil grievances, saying that complaints and
grievances should be directed at Abdullah's coalition government, which
continues to neglect the plight not only of Indian but also other ethnic
groups. "We should demand justice for all Malaysians who need it," Anwar said.
Malay Muslims, representing about 60% of the population, were the most backward
economically at independence in 1957 and in the early years of nationhood. But
through the New Economic Policy (NEP) implemented in 1970, ethnic Malays have
through preferential employment, education, housing and other benefits rapidly
advanced and today form a sizeable middle-class.
The NEP, which was originally designed irrespective of race to eradicate
poverty, create wealth and ensure economic equality, is today at the core of
Malaysia's widening racial divide. Anwar has promised to roll back the
controversial legislation if his party is elected at the next polls and many of
Sunday's protestors have vowed to vote for the opposition unless their
grievances are addressed.
Either way, a politically charged Tamil minority adds to Abdullah's
government's woes in the run-up to general elections expected to be held early
(Inter Press Service with editing by Asia Times Online.)