The Malaysia government signalled its desire to compromise, dropping charges of some Indians who were arrested for participating in a street demonstration on 25 November.
About 20,000 ethnic Indians demonstrated in the streets in defiance of a government ban. 31 Indians were charged with attempted murder for a non life-threatening head injury to one policeman.
At a packed Court on Monday (17 December) Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail told the judge he was dropping all charges against five Indians and attempted murder charges against the 26 others. Patail said, “I could be very strict but I don’t think this is the time to be that strict… When we exercise the law ... we look at what is fair and just ... and in my judgment this is the fairest thing to do.” Nonetheless, five key leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force, which organized the rally, remain in detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA).
Earlier, a newly established coalition of 40 Indian groups on Sunday (16 December) urged the government to release the five leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force. coalition secretary, Mr A. Rajaretnam said, “The five who are detained should be charged in court. We want an environment in Malaysia where no one is victimised, and where there is a place for everyone in Malaysia.” The coalition wanted the establishment of an office for non-Muslim affairs in the PM’s Department and regular meetings with the Prime Minister. Najib Tun Razak, deputy Prime Minister, was quick to rebut that the absence of a department for non-Muslim affairs does not mean the non-Muslims are “forsaken”. He also pointed out the difficulties of setting up a dedicated department as “the other religions do no fall under the official religion category”.
Prime Minister (PM) Abdullah Badawi had already met some of these Indian-based non-governmental organisations on Friday (14 December) to ask for their views on the issues facing the community. Datuk A.Vaithilingam, the spokesman of one of the groups which attended the meeting- Malaysia Hindu Sangam- said that the meeting with Badawi was ‘very fruitful.’
Prime Minister Badawi assured them that the government would provide for equal chances for all races, saying, “Different communities have different needs. It is impossible for the government to fulfil everyone’s needs 100 per cent….However, I can assure you that we will continue to do more in the future.”
However, the Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum warned that it is ‘only a matter of time’ before more people are detained under the ISA. The warning comes at a time when phone text messages have been circulating in Malaysia, claiming that Malays would gather at a Malay enclave, Kampong Baru to demonstrate for their rights. Baharum cautioned, “‘My advice to those who organise street protests and rumour mongers who circulate text messages - stop it. If you don’t, we will not hesitate to use the ISA.”
In a survey conducted by pollster Merdeka Centre from 7 – 12 December, the results apparently reflected majority support for the government’s decision to use the law to stop anyone from threatening racial peace and harmony. 52% also felt that street demonstrations were unacceptable for voicing views.
The Malaysian government is also expected to face strong pressure from its Malay constituency. At a closed door briefing for some 1,000 Umno division leaders and members held on Saturday (15 December), some ruling party UMNO members expressed unhappiness at the government’s ‘slow response’ in using the ISA to crackdown on street demonstrators. One source said, “Some even used harsh words against the leadership for being too lenient with street demonstrators. They don’t want the government to tolerate troublemakers and militants.” Balancing the demands by the various ethnic groups is going to prove challenging. (18 December 2007)
Most Malaysians back tough stance on street protests: Poll (Straits Times, 18 December 2007)
Non-Muslims not forsaken (Straits Times, 18 December 2007)
Malaysian prosecutors drop attempted murder charges against 31 ethnic Indians (Associated Press, 17 December 2007)
PM: Government provides equal chances for all (New Straits Times, 17 December 2007)
Malaysia ready to arrest more people under ISA (Straits Times, 17 December 2007)
Indian groups urge govt to free activists nabbed under ISA (Straits Times, 17 December 2007)
Disappointed over ‘slow response’ (New Sunday Times, 16 December 2007)
Talk of KL racial clashes ‘just rumours’ (Straits Times, 16 December 2007)