Malaysia: Malaysia's Prague Spring?


James Chin

In the past month, two massive rallies calling for political change were held in Kuala Lumpur. In any democracies, this would be quite normal but in Malaysia, rallies are the purview of the ruling National Front (BN), carefully staged to show support to the government or the ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) party. The police often deny a permit for opposition parties to hold outdoor demonstrations or rallies. These two rallies were different; they were organised by NGOs, albeit with support from opposition parties.

The first rally, on 10 November, was organised by BERSIH (Malay for clean), a coalition of NGOs and opposition parties calling for "clean" elections. Under the existing electoral system, through indirect control of the Electoral Commission, ethnic mobilisation, money politics, manipulation of the electoral roll, gerrymandering, postal votes, double voting, mass media control and others, the BN has won every election since independence. The standing joke in Malaysia is that BN wins the election before the first vote is cast, the only question is the margin of victory. BERSIH wants electoral reform in all the areas mentioned above. To the surprise of many, more than 40,000 BERSIH supporters in yellow t-shirts came out despite public warnings from the Prime Minister and the Police that the rally was illegal and those who take part will be arrested. The police attempted to lock-down downtown KL but failed. In some areas, the police used tear gas and water cannons laced with chemicals to clear the streets. Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang and Hadi Haji Awang, leaders of the three main opposition parties - National Justice Party (PKR) , Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Islam (PAS) respectively - managed to evade the police and lead thousands to hand over the BERSIH memorandum on electoral reform to a representative of the royal palace.

The massive number of people must have spooked the government. Mainstream newspapers were told to downplay the story despite the fact that this was the biggest rally in the country since 1988 when thousands rallied in support of Anwar Ibrahim, who has just been sacked as deputy prime minister. Newspaper instead ran stories about the traffic problems created by the rally and how street demonstrations were not part of "our culture".

The ability of BERSIH to organise such a huge rally despite strong police action and public warnings from the Prime Minster himself personally must have impressed another group of disenfranchised Malaysians - the Indian community. It was the Indian community who organised the second rally to challenge the government two weeks later on 25 November.

In recent years, the Indian community, comprising not more than 7 per cent of the population, have faced under-development. Being a small minority with no real political bargaining power in the BN coalition, the Indian community have been left adrift in the past three decades. Today, they have the lowest educational attainment levels among the three major ethnic groups and a large number of them have turned to urban 'gangsterism' as a means of survival. There is little the Indian politicians in the BN can do given that the official policy is to favour bumiputera in all social, educational and economic spheres. The Chinese, being much larger numerically as a group and with a large business class, were able to mitigate the racial discriminatory bumiputera policies. Most of the Indians come from the plantations with little capital and poor education. The community's small group of professionals are unwilling or unable to help their brethren in the plantations to move up socially.

The current crisis was sparked off by religious disputes in the past few years. For some time now, the authorities have been removing hundreds of makeshift Indian temples, often build on state land. This can often create a religious/racial dispute as the local authorities tend to be Malay-Muslim employees of local councils, often backed up by the police. The police are also predominately Malay-Muslims. Many Hindu sees the destruction of their temples as the state favouring Islam over their religion. The state, on the other hand, sees the removal of these temples as simply a legal matter and, very often, offers the devotees an alternative site to build a replacement temple.

Last December, M Moorthy, an Indian Malaysian, passed away. Moorthy was a household name in the Hindu community because he was the first Malaysian to scale Mount Everest. When his family wanted to give him a Hindu burial, officials from the Federal Territory Islamic Affairs Department (FTIAC) intervened and said Moorthy had converted to Islam and must be given an Islamic burial. Moorthy's wife, S Kaliammal, disputed the conversion but could not do anything as the FTIAC went to the Syariah Hight Court to get a court order to remove the body for burial. For many Hindus, this was the last straw. They saw the state not only disrespecting their dead but also actively destroying their temples and religious symbols. To add insult to injury they saw that the Indian politicians in the BN, principally the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), were powerless to stop the process. In fact the MIC was forced to defend the state's actions in destroying the "illegal" temples.

The unhappiness lead to the formation of Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) by three Indian lawyers. They began producing videos showing the destruction of Hindu temples and held ceremahs (talks) in Indian community halls throughout the peninsula. Two months ago, they filed a US$4 trillion lawsuit in the UK against the British government for bringing Indians to Malaysia as indentured labourers and "exploiting" them during the colonial era. Furthermore, the suit sought a declaration that the rights of the Indian community were ignored when Malayan independence was granted in 1957, resulting in discrimination and marginalisation to this day. They want Britain to pay US$2 million for every Indian currently residing in Malaysia for their pain and suffering. Although not said, the suit is actually to draw attention to the controversial NEP bumiputera affirmative policy in Malaysia. The lawsuit has no legal chance to succeed but it will draw support and attention from Hindu groups all around the world and highlight the racial discrimination faced by the Hindus in Malaysia.

To highlight the suit in Malaysia, Hindraf announced that it would organise a rally on 25 November to deliver a petition to the British High Commission in Jalan Amapng. The petition seeks the intervention of Queen Elizabeth II to help in the lawsuit. From the start it was clear that the rally was not really about the petition given that 25 was a Sunday and the High Commission is closed on Sundays. It was all about a public rally to show the Indian community's unhappiness with the Malay-dominated government.

This time the police took pre-emptive action. After another round of public warnings by the Prime Minster, the deputy Prime Minister and the leader of the MIC, the police arrested the leaders of Hindraf 48 hours before the rally and charged them for sedition. The police also shut down all the roads leading to the High Commission. Despite that, more than 10,000 people, mostly Indians, showed up to support Hindraf. After several hours of standoff, the police began to use water cannons and tear gas. This time the rally attracted even more attention as the melee happened right in front of the Petronas Twin Towers, Malaysia's iconic symbol. The running battle between the police and the protestors lasted about five hours.

In both these rallies, the key ingredient for their success in mobilising a large number of people was technology - SMS and the internet. SMS and the internet were used extensively to mobilise the people and provide an alternative viewpoint to officialdom. It allowed the organisers to effectively bypass the mainstream media and connect with the individual who are unhappy with the government and its policies.

Far more disturbing are credible reports by members of the Bar Council that police have used excessive force in both rallies. Eyewitness suggests that if the rallies were allowed, it would have been peaceful. The actions of the police reinforced the popular view that the police, like other institutions of the state, is not neutral. They appear to be serving the people in power.

At the end of the day, the demonstrations highlight the increasing unhappiness with the "soft" authoritarian style of government and the bumiputera policy. The government can no longer stop open discussions of "sensitive" topics no matter how hard they clamp down.

WATCHPOINT: Are we seeing a Prague Spring in Malaysia, ie, political openness before a massive crackdown? A decade ago, street protests were effectively stopped by Mahathir using selected arrests of key opposition leaders under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the shutting down of newspapers deemed to be unfriendly. This time around, the use of ISA will keep opposition leaders inside but it will not stop the flow of opposition news to Malaysians and the outside world. Far more important, these rallies may serve as the catalyst for widespread demonstrations throughout the country, causing the government to either delay the widely-expected general elections or, hold a snap election before any more big demonstrations are held.


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