Malaysia - Indian mutiny
Jan 24th 2008 KUALA LUMPUR
From The Economist print edition
Mike Ghouse: The civility of a governmnet or the powerful is judged by how it treats its minorities or the weak. Malaysia is loosing it out on its pluralistic heritage. I would urge the United Nations and the International Leadership council to take this project up to keep peace for every Malaysian. We must condemn the extremists from pushing their way into government, any government. Such benefits are delterious to long term peace of every Citizen. Before the conflict gets deeply entrenched, an equitable solution must be worked out for the long term benefits of every Citizen, including the extremists. I will do my part.
A hitherto quiescent minority loses faith in the social contract
A minority shares its painSOME devotees had been fasting for weeks and shaved their heads. The most zealous pierced their cheeks with skewers or attached large wooden icons to their bodies with dozens of flesh-piercing hooks. On January 23rd tens of thousands of ethnic-Indian Malaysians gathered at the Batu Caves temple outside Kuala Lumpur to celebrate Thaipusam, one of Hinduism's biggest festivals. In past years more than a million have turned out. This year, although ministers and pro-government newspapers denied it, the crowd was much thinner. Many Malaysian Indians seemed to have answered a call for a boycott, amid rising anger at the way their minority—around 8% of the country's population—is treated by the government.
Three days earlier the prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, had sought to appease Hindu anger by promising that Thaipusam would henceforth be a public holiday in the capital of the Muslim-majority country. He announced this at a gathering of around 15,000 Malaysian Indians, hoping to show that he still retains their support, despite the emergence in the past year of a radical protest group called the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf.
Last November Indians gathering at the Batu Caves on the eve of a Hindraf street march were trapped when the temple's managers—said to be linked to the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), part of Mr Badawi's ruling coalition—locked the gates and called the police. In the disorder that followed, many were arrested. Even so, the next morning at least 10,000 took part in the Hindraf march, which the police broke up with tear-gas and baton charges.
In the 50 years of peninsular Malaysia's independence from Britain, the ethnic Indians have been more quiescent than the richer, better educated and more assertive ethnic Chinese, who make up about one-quarter of the population. Under an implicit “social contract”, the two minorities, mostly descended from migrant workers, were given citizenship in return for accepting that ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups, together known as bumiputras (sons of the soil), would enjoy privileged access to state jobs and education. All the races have done well from strong economic growth since independence. The Indians and Chinese suffer even lower poverty rates than the bumiputras. But whereas the majority population have, with official help, started catching up with the Chinese in the property and shares they own, the Indians still have few assets (see chart). Often they are stuck in rented homes and low-skilled urban jobs.
The Indians' sense of missing out on the good life has helped to feed their mood of grievance. But what has most fuelled their anger in the past few years is a feeling that “creeping Islamisation” threatens their religious freedom. The issue that triggered Hindraf's formation, according to N. Surendran, one of the group's leaders, was the demolition of a number of “unauthorised” Hindu temples by local governments, often by state workers who were Malays and thus Muslims. The big rally in November came a few weeks after a temple in Shah Alam, west of the capital, was demolished just before Divali, another important Hindu festival, despite the temple committee's pleas to delay its destruction for a few more days.
Many of the threatened temples were constructed by migrant workers in colonial times, without formal permission, on plantations or by roads and railways built by the migrants. Now this land is being redeveloped. Hence the drive to demolish them, says A. Vaithilingam of the Malaysia Hindu Sangam, the main association of temples. The authorities could try harder to resolve disputes, he says, but they are too anxious to please rich developers.
The heavy-handed response to Hindraf's protests has served to make things worse. Five Hindraf leaders have been detained without trial under a colonial-era security law, and were said this week to have gone on hunger strike. Hindraf denies the government's charge that it has links to Sri Lanka's rebels, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
With an election expected shortly, Mr Badawi has sought to soothe ethnic Indian anger. Besides declaring Thaipusam a holiday he has promised a cabinet committee to look into poverty among all races. But he may also calculate that the unnecessarily harsh treatment of Hindraf will win his party votes among hardline Malays. If so, he risks helping the extremists on each side peddle the dangerous myth that there is a zero-sum game between the races—and that the way to win it is to take to the streets.