Writing the World
Ethnic Tension in Malaysia Erupts in Violence
By Ted Meinhover
Recent unrest in the capital city of Malaysia has not received much attention from the Western media. However, last weekendâ€™s demonstrations that resulted in violent clashes with police could be more important than the eventâ€™s lack of coverage lets on, especially as ethnic tensions flare up in the suburbs of Paris and in other countries around the world. The demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, were organized by Hindraf, the Hindu Rights Action Force, and most of the demonstrators were Malaysians of Indian descent. The organization was hoping to mobilize support as it delivered a two page memorandum to the British High Commission and launched a lawsuit against Britain, Malaysiaâ€™s former colonial power, for bringing Indians to Malaysia as indentured laborers and exploiting them for 150 years. The gathering quickly escalated, however, as protestors clashed with police forces. Official reports say that 129 demonstrators were arrested, though some web sites cite up to 700 arrests. and pictures of protesters that were injured in scuffles with police appear on blogs and NGO web sites. The government says the crowd began throwing rocks, while activists say the police were first to use violence.
Discontent with the Malaysian government became obvious even as the crowd moved toward the British High Commission. The â€œplight of the Indian communityâ€ is a systematic problem in the country, says V.K. Regu, secretary of Hindraf. Despite the countryâ€™s image as a tourist paradise and place of harmonious diversity â€“ the population is about 50 percent Malay, 24 percent Chinese, and seven percent Indian and includes Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus â€“ there is an undeniable history of racial and religious conflict. Perhaps most notorious are the riots in the 1960â€™s when many Chinese Malaysians, seen by ethnic Malays as controlling the economy, were killed. The population has been politically divided along ethnic lines since the new government was created in 1957, when Malaysia gained its independence from Britain. Many say that the process that created that government was manipulated to privilege the ethnic Malays, who hold a slight majority. According to the independent news site Malaysia Kini, the legal suit brought by Hindras sought a declaration that the countryâ€™s legal framework â€œfailed to incorporate the rights of the Indian community when Malaya was granted independence. This has resulted in discrimination and marginalization to this day.â€
The government did not approve Hindrafâ€™s application for a permit for the demonstration, which is required for any political gathering in the country. These permits are rarely granted to groups critical of the government, says one Hindraf activist in Kuala Lumpur. Many see this as a suppression of the democratic rights of groups that question the government. The Internal Security Act of 1960, put in place during a period of national emergency, gives the government the power to detain people seen as a threat, and was never rescinded. The Act is criticized as a convenient tool for the government to silence opposition. Furthermore, an Act passed in 1971 says that university students participating in political acts face suspension from school. The government has threatened to pursue any students that are convicted of participating in the rallies over the weekend.
â€œItâ€™s not like here in America. If you want to have a public demonstration in Malaysia that criticizes the government, youâ€™ll never get approval from the authorities, and your demonstration becomes â€˜illegal,â€™â€ said Tini, a Malaysian now living in Minneapolis. â€œGroups that are pro-government, of course, have no problem getting a permit to hold public rallies,â€ she added. A Malaysian activist close to Hindraf said that, had a permit for the public assembly been granted, it would have been a peaceful rally that lasted an hour at the most. Criminalizing the demonstration only served to further anger and frustrate the Indian community.
Feelings of marginalization and even discrimination are not hard to find within the minority populations on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Malaysiaâ€™s affirmative action Bumiputra laws, for example, give privileges to ethnic Malays, or Bumiputra, the majority group in the country. Other ethnic groups often feel slighted by these policies as they compete with Malays for government jobs, spots in public universities, and economic benefits. A greater percentage of Malaysiaâ€™s Indian population lives in poverty than the other major ethnic groups, as well. These feelings played no small part in the escalation of the demonstrations last weekend.
Not all Indians in Malaysia agree with the tactics of the demonstrators, however. One young ethnic Indian reporter working for the largest national daily, The New Straits Times, who declined to be named to protect her job, is as frustrated as anyone. â€œEthnic Malays have so much privilege, getting good jobs and getting into university. Indians have never been empowered in Malaysia.â€ However, she considers the demonstrations and violence counterproductive. â€œI want to make change, I also feel marginalized, but Iâ€™d rather fight for it in the media and on the political floor. How stupid can you be, they were throwing stones at the police? What good does that do? The protesters that got hurt were the ones causing trouble and resisting arrest.â€
In an interesting side note, the reporter went on to say that the environment in the newsroom of the New Straits Times was tense. Journalists in Malaysia do not enjoy the freedom to report without a degree of censorship, both from without and within. While many of the journalists have very strong feelings about the issues, what is published is closely monitored.
The tension in Malaysia should serve as a warning to be heeded not only by the Malaysian government but by the peoples of all countries. Civil society must be supported and democratic dialogue promoted in the face of the challenges presented by diversity. Differences between ethnicities and religions exist everywhere, and civil society must approach these challenges through communications and democracy in order to achieve a peaceful society.