Facing Malaysia's Racial Issues

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Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters

Ethnic-Indian protesters flee police water cannons during a demonstration in Kuala Lumpur, November 25, 2007

It may have been one of Malaysia's most surreal demonstrations ever. On Sunday, an estimated 20,000 ethnic Indians brought Kuala Lumpur to a standstill for nearly six hours in the name of Queen Elizabeth II. They gathered in the thousands near the Malaysian capital's iconic Petronas Towers, waving giant posters with enlarged images apparently downloaded from the Internet, depicting the British monarch in full royal regalia, or in her Sunday best inspecting flowers in Kensington. One banner read in English and Tamil: THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND — THE SYMBOL OF JUSTICE, WE STILL HAVE HOPE ON YOU. Alongside the pictures of the queen, many protestors also hung images of Mahatma Gandhi around their necks to symbolize the non-violent nature of their march. The foreign tourists who hadn't already been driven out of the square by the crowds gawked and started taking photographs.

The demonstrators — mostly ethnic Tamils, the descendants of 19th-cetury indentured laborers brought to Malaysia from South India by British colonists — had planned to march on the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur's Ampang diplomatic enclave to submit a two-page memorandum urging the Queen of England to help them in a legal case brought against the British government. The class action suit, filed in London in August by the Malaysia-based Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) demands that the British government pay some $4 trillion in damages to atone for what the group calls the "150 years of exploitation" of ethnic Indians by their former colonial masters. Hindraf had organized Sunday's march to the High Commission in order to urge the Queen to appoint Queen's Counsel to argue their case, as the group cannot afford to pay the legal fees.

Soon, however, the protest took a darker turn. A day earlier the government had detained three protest leaders, obtained a court order banning the rally and repeatedly warned that any participants would be arrested. Using tear gas and water cannons, about 5,000 armed riot police pushed back the protestors; over 190 people were arrested and dozens injured in the melee. "We only want to urge the Queen to help us win a case we have filed against the British government in London. But the police are treating us like animals," said lorry driver Ramakrishan Subramaniam, 41, who like many others had journeyed overnight from the countryside to register his protest. "I have a 10-month-old baby and worry what kind of a future she has in this country."

It's a worry many ethnic Indians share. Making up some 8% of Malaysia's population (Malays make up about 60 percent, ethnic Chinese about 25 percent), Indians are historically underprivileged compared to other ethnic groups and have long felt discriminated against, particularly by a Malays-first affirmative action policy instituted after independence in 1957. "Our community is backward, our schools are dilapidated. We are the last in the line for jobs, scholarships, health benefits," says opposition lawmaker Kulasegaran Murugesan, an ethnic Tamil. Hindraf, modeled after right-wing Hindu nationalist groups in India, is winning support by demanding an increased share of Malaysia's wealth. "For over a decade we have been appealing to the government for help to alleviate our poverty but all our appeals had fell on deaf ears," says Uthayakumar Ponnusamy, Hindraf's legal adviser. "The British brought us here, exploited us for 150 years and left us to the mercy of a Malay Muslim government. They should compensate us now."

The protest comes just weeks after another banned rally turned violent, as an estimated 30,000 demonstrators demanding free and fair elections clashed with riot police. It was the largest display of public anger since 1998, when thousands rallied following the sacking of then-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim over charges of sodomy and corruption. Malaysia is a normally stable nation that places great stock in its image as an ethnically harmonious society; government officals say they are worried about the racial dimensions of Hindraf's campaign. "It is not easy to satisfy all the races at one time," said Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak in a statement to Malaysia's official Bernama news agency. "We are helping the poor among all races but expectations can get high if fanned by irresponsible people."

Opposition politicians also worry that Hindraf's protest threatens to exacerbate religious and ethnic tensions. "They should be more inclusive," said Anwar, now a leading opposition figure, in a statement on Sunday. "We must champion the cause of the poor of all races, not just Indians." Still, with other ethnic minorities and even many Malays now saying the affirmative action program is being used more to benefit the rich and powerful than lift up the lower classes, the opposition stands to gain in general elections widely expected by next March. For people like Ramakrishnan, worried that rising food and fuel prices are eating into his meager income, the choice will be easy. "We will vote opposition this time to send a clear message to the Malay government to treat us with respect, to share with us," he says. "We fight for the future of our children; we don't want them to suffer like us."