Malaysia at the crossroads

P.S. Suryanarayana

Does the wave of protests signify passing unrest or indeed a political ferment?

Has the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) polarised Malaysia along ethnic lines or won friends and influenced opinion-makers in the country? The answer is a complex one.

Outwardly, Hindraf’s aggressive campaign, unusual for the protagonists of the rights of the Indian-origin minority in Muslim-majority Malaysia, has surprised and hardened feelings among the dominant Malays. The Malay-guided multi-racial government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, decisively moved against the top Hindraf leaders, who organised a mass protest rally in Kuala Lumpur on November 25.

On December 13, five Hindraf leaders — P. Uthayakumar, M. Manoharan, V. Ganapati Rao, R. Kengadharan, and Vasanthakumar — were detained, without trial, under the Internal Security Act. Unless Mr. Abdullah is forced to change tack under pressure from the largely multi-racial opposition camp, the five leaders may be detained under the ISA for two years. They have been accused of several anti-state activities. But the chief charges, not formalised in legal parlance which is not required under the ISA, are that they have sought to fan “racial hatred” and that they pose “a threat to national security.”

However, Hindraf, a new ethnic Indian group that competes with the long-established Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) for political space, has struck a chord among the multi-racial opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP). The resonance relates entirely to the Hindraf demand: a fair deal for the Malaysian Indians, who are seen to lag, as a collective community, behind the Malays and the largest minority of ethnic Chinese in economic terms. It is unclear at this stage whether this resonance can translate into a political arrangement between Hindraf and the DAP over time.

The reasons are not far to seek. First, the DAP has by and large evolved organically as a multi-racial party. So, Hindraf, widely seen at present as a group based on race and religion, is not necessarily a potential political ally. This is so, despite the fact that Hindraf claims to have “supporters” from other races as well, especially the ethnic Chinese. And, as a non-governmental umbrella group representing Malaysian Indians, Hindraf tends to count among its “supporters” Christians and Muslims of Indian origin as well.

The second reason for a question mark over any potential DAP-Hindraf political entente is that the future of this new ethnic Indian group is indeterminable. The state power deployed against the outfit is formidable at this stage. And, the authorities have not also tired of arguing that Hindraf, for all its international impact as a rights group in Malaysia, is not a registered body in the country itself. This is said to be the reason why it has not been formally banned.

‘Struggle’ to continue

Waytha Moorty, a Hindraf leader on Malaysia’s watch-list but not detained under the ISA, told this correspondent over the telephone from London that he would continue to lead the group’s “struggle” from there. He was abroad, canvassing international support, when the Malaysian government invoked the ISA against his fellow-leaders.

On Friday, December 21, Hindraf’s new coordinator Thanenthiran was permitted to visit Mr. Uthayakumar at the Kamunting Detention Centre, where he and his four colleagues are being held. According to Mr. Thanenthiran, Mr. Uthayakumar said “the Hindraf struggle must continue” and that he “remains a loyal Malaysian.”

In this emerging situation, and regardless of Hindraf’s future, its vigorous campaign, even after the ISA-related detentions of its leaders, has caught the attention of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR). Guided by Anwar Ibrahim — a former Deputy Prime Minister who was jailed for several years and is now a proactive campaigner for political and electoral reforms — the PKR is a major force on the opposition scene.

Call for free, fair elections

About a fortnight before the November 25 Hindraf rally, Mr. Anwar led a protest march along Kuala Lumpur’s streets, demanding “free and fair elections” and constitutional guarantees to institutionalise such a system. He has, in recent months, sought to widen PKR’s base so that non-Malays too could make common cause with the Malays on issues of mutual interest.

The Hindraf rally was, in turn, followed by a symbolic street walk by a multi-racial group of lawyers to demand “freedom of assembly.” The protest walk was held in defiance of official orders against issue-based street gatherings without “police permits.” Opposition activists, cutting across party lines, later protested outside Parliament, accusing the government of softening the poll machinery before a possible general election early next year. And, the Malaysian Bar Council has begun emphasising that the idea of “police permits” for street gatherings was a travesty of Malaysia’s constitutional freedoms.

“Police permit” sought

Significantly, several organisations, including Hindraf as a “supporting” outfit, postponed a rally they planned to hold on December 22 and decided, instead, to seek a “police permit” for a march early next month. The purpose of the proposed rally is to protest against arrests under the “draconian” ISA, and the idea behind the new move for a “police permit” is to test the government’s real intentions, according to the organisers.

Under unofficial estimates, over 90 persons, cutting across ethnic lines, are said to be currently under ISA-related detentions without trial. Besides this larger aspect, another issue that has brought together some sections of Malaysians across ethnic lines is that of “religious conversions” and the place of Islamic law under the Constitution.

As a chain reaction since the rally that was led by Mr. Anwar for electoral reforms, Malaysian politics has now entered an assertive phase of issue-based articulation. So far, PAS, an Islamist opposition party, has largely stayed on the sidelines of the current phenomenon. Does the current wave of street protest signify a passing phase of unrest or indeed a possible political ferment? Either way, the country is at the crossroads.

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