Writing the World: Malaysia Tensions

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 weekend’s demonstrations that resulted in violent clashes with police could be more important than the event’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, Malaysia’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 “plight of the Indian community” is a systematic problem in the country, says V.K. Regu, secretary of Hindraf. Despite the country’s image as a tourist paradise and place of harmonious diversity – the population is about 50 percent Malay, 24 percent Chinese, and seven percent Indian and includes Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus – there is an undeniable history of racial and religious conflict. Perhaps most notorious are the riots in the 1960’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 country’s legal framework “failed to incorporate the rights of the Indian community when Malaya was granted independence. This has resulted in discrimination and marginalization to this day.”

The government did not approve Hindraf’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.

“It’s not like here in America. If you want to have a public demonstration in Malaysia that criticizes the government, you’ll never get approval from the authorities, and your demonstration becomes ‘illegal,’” said Tini, a Malaysian now living in Minneapolis. “Groups that are pro-government, of course, have no problem getting a permit to hold public rallies,” 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. Malaysia’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 Malaysia’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. “Ethnic Malays have so much privilege, getting good jobs and getting into university. Indians have never been empowered in Malaysia.” However, she considers the demonstrations and violence counterproductive. “I want to make change, I also feel marginalized, but I’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.”

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.

Janine di Giovanni speaking on Human Rights and Journalism

It’s not always easy to inspire me. Compared to the lives of so many, mine is a life of comfort, and a little shaking prompts one to open the eyes and not only notice the world around but have an opinion about it and have the desire to change it. It’s not that Janine di Giovanni was telling us something we had never heard before when she spoke earlier tonight at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis. As a foreign correspondet who has spent her career documenting and reporting on human rights abuses around the world, she spoke of her experiences in warzones and disaster areas from Sierra Leone to Bosnia, about the real suffering experienced by human beings that are outside the conscioussness of so many Americans.

The way she talked about these things, however, without pretense, her passion for her chosen career obvious, made watching and listening to her a special experience. Her brightest moments were when she fielded questions from the audience. Often her responses were more eloquant and focused than the speech she had prepared, incredibly intelligent,j creative, and spontaneous. And some of them were even unexpected.

When she answered my questions, she spoke straight from her experience and passion. Her message was to the whole audience, but I felt she was talking to me, personalizing her message. She put herself in the role of a mentor, that same experience and passion working to give direction, advice, inspiration to me and the audience. What she said was important, and should be heard by an entire generation.

Ms. Giovanni spoke on November 27, at the Walker Museum in Minneapolis, as part of a speaker series “Drawing Conflict, Writing War.”

From the Ground in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia, the South East Asian country located on the Malay peninsula North of Singapore and South of Thailand, has been pointed to as an example of a successful new democratic country that has benefited immensely from its its entrance into the global economy. It’s also seen as a country in which three main ethnic and religious groups, the Islamic Malays, the Indians, and the Chinese have lived in colorful harmony.

The tension that has existed under the dominant currents in the government controlled media has been around since the very inception of the country, after its bloodless independence from the British in 1957.

hindraf rally kl november 26

Continue reading “From the Ground in Kuala Lumpur”

Cooperative Development in Aceh, Indonesia

One of the most energizing and powerful experiences during my time overseas, the opportunity to visit my friend in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, where he was working with cooperative organizations to promote development after the tsunami of 2004, inspired me and proved to me the power and importance of civil society.

A presentation, by the staff of DEKOPINWIL (The Indonesian Cooperative Council of Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam Province) to members of international organizations also working in Aceh, gives an idea of the project they were working on at the time I was there. Click here for a link.

Indonesia at the UN Security Council

Observers of the mainstream media in the US might find it all to easy to miss Indonesia. However, having lived there, I find it much harder to resist the sometimes romantic (though often frustrating) aesthetic of the country and many of its citizens’ passion for political discourse and democracy than I do to simply disregard Indonesia as an inconsequential player on the world scene.

Currently in New York, Indonesia seems to be taking full advantage of its temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, fully participating in discussions and decision making processes on issues such as “The Situation in Afghanistan and Its Implications for International Peace and Security,” “Women and Peace and Security,” and “Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism.” Many of Marty M. Natalegawa, Indonesia’s Permanent Representative to the Security Council’s most recent statements can be viewed here, the mission of the RI to the USA’s website, along with statements and speeches of other diplomats.
Also, Mr. Natallegawa’s comments at the SC’s meeting on the agenda item “Promotion and Protection of Human Rights” were recently published in the Jakarta Post.

Adventures in the Working World

Though I haven’t quit my day job (yet), I am excited by my first piece of writing to be published since I have returned to the Twin Cities and began life as a non-undergraduate student.

My first attempt at a book review, a short article about the recently published book “Dirty Diplomacy,” was published in this week’s Asian American Press, a weekly published in St. Paul, catering to the Asian community in the seven county area around the Twin Cities.

Check out Ted’s journalistic debut here: The Fine Line Between Freedom and Security”

A City Loses a Little of Its Glow

After 37 years, North Country Coop to close it’s doors on November

4th, 2007.

Posted on the website of the West Bank’s North Country Coop, the sentence is a kind of dying breath. As someone said just today, time marches on. And march on it does – march on it must. Still, there are things we should be reluctant to let go of, things that are truly good that should not pass. NCC, we hardly knew thee.