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Silencing the dissenting voices in the name of national cohesion as social fabric tears

Updated On: Dec 12, 2007

The tide seems to have turned against the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) and all its supporters.

The Malaysian government has gained the upper hand in the racial discrimination issue against the Indian ethnic minority by utilising state mechanisms, threatening the use of security laws, as well as mobilising grassroots support –even from within the Indian community.  However, the tide “unleashed” by HINDRAF’s demands have made the Malaysian social fabric even more fragile as Malay community calls for clampdowns, and rumours were rife that the Malays were “called to arms to protect their rights”.  It also reflected perhaps the failure of the official representative of the Indian community –the Malaysia Indian Congress (MIC) – to do more to address the pent-up frustrations and grievances of some within its community.

The matter which began in the preceding weeks with the unprecedented large assembly in Kuala Lumpur, the petitioning of the UK government and filing of a racial discrimination lawsuit in London escalated with the Indian national government’s verbal intervention and summoning of the Malaysian ambassador.

Malaysia has promptly sought to control the damage. Malaysian PM Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has threatened to unleash the Internal Security Act against troublemakers. Moreover, the government explicitly seconds the suspension of HINDRAF’s business licence by the Companies Commission of Malaysia as it had allegedly misused funds for illegal activities. PM Badawi said “the commission, which is under the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry, was acting within its jurisdiction as provided by the law”. He also said that the HINDRAF had not been banned as it was not a registered society. Thus what the government is now doing is to “monitor their activities closely”.

The government has also made an extraordinary claim against HINDRAF, calling it a terror group out to destabilise Malaysia. Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail said, “Somebody lodged a report based on the grounds that these people have gone out to contact the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). We all know that the LTTE has been declared a terrorist organization.” Malaysian Police Inspector-General Musa Hassan then told the media, “Of late there have been indications that HINDRAF is trying to seek support and help from terrorist groups.”

One of HINDRAF’s leaders, P. Uthayakumar, scoffed at the latest accusation, saying, “They've no more bullets to fire so they're firing this at us. It's like killing a fly with a sledgehammer, because we're so small. They are trying to lay the foundation to arrest us under the ISA or to charge us for a criminal offence and deny us bail. At all costs, they want us locked up and behind bars when all we are doing is highlighting the marginalisation and permanent colonization and racism against Indians here.” He added that unless Musa proved that HINDRAF’s terror-links were real, he would file a 10 million ringgit defamation lawsuit against him.

However, this latest shot from the government against HINDRAF has hit the bull’s eye. India promptly removed itself from the fracas after it was announced that HINDRAF was suspected of being linked to the Tamil Tigers. India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said, “All countries are entitled to take any appropriate action according to their laws and international conventions.”

As earlier predicted in the aftermath of the HINDRAF demonstration that the social fabric would be rent, there are more racial and political tensions than ever. The Malay community representatives have come out to condemn HINDRAF. The UMNO Youth chief Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein called for a probe into HINDRAF, saying, “We cannot permit a small fraction of Malaysians to inflict damage to the nation’s reputation.” Agriculture and Agro-based Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has also denounced the group, saying, “Hindraf is irresponsible, un-Malaysian and cannot be allowed to act in a swashbuckling manner. They will disrupt racial harmony in this country.”

The Indian ethnic representative in the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional –the MIC –is now caught between a rock and a hard place. There seems to be two factions within the Indian community. MIC president Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu insisted that immigration from India to Malaysia had brought prosperity. However, he acknowledged much more needed to be done. He announced that while “about 2.9% of Indian households were below the poverty line but the mean monthly household income of Indian families was RM3,456, compared to the national figure of RM3,022”; and that MIC had “assisted in getting business licences for Indian businessmen”. On HINDRAF, Vellu said, “The party will not interfere. It’s up to the Prime Minister to decide as and when there is something dangerous happening in the country. Hindraf’s agenda is not to fight for the betterment of the Indian community.”

However, Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang, from the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, slammed the government for wanting to sweep everything under the carpet. He then filed for an emergency debate in parliament on the unsubstantiated and irresponsible terror allegations were “a matter of grave national concern”. He said, “It will be Malaysia's misfortune and tragedy if the government's sole concern is to indiscriminately demonise the Hindraf leaders.”

James Chin of the Swinburne University of Technology (Malaysia Campus) has commented that the recent spate of public demonstrations may herald a “Prague Spring” in Malaysia –political openness before a massive crackdown, just like a decade when then PM Mahathir Mohamed arrested key opposition leaders under the ISA and silenced ‘unfriendly’ media operations. He also predicted that the widespread public dissent may cause “the government to either delay the widely-expected general elections or, hold a snap election before any more big demonstrations are held”.

Already, the Malaysian police stopped the annual human-rights march that many lawyers participated in on Sunday (9 December) and arrested eight people with a great show of force. Following the arrests, PM Badawi parried criticisms of governmental oppression, saying unapologetically that “lawyers were not above the law”. He also called for all troublemakers to desist immediately, and warned that he was willing to “sacrifice public freedom for public safety” and hence would not hesitate to use the Internal Security Act (ISA_ against those fomenting violence.

More tellingly, the government is obviously uncertain of its popularity. PM Badawi said over the weekend that the elections would not be for some time yet as he “still had a lot to do”. (11 December 2007)

Sources:

Abdullah warns: Public safety before freedom (Straits Times, 11 December 2007)

Police stop peace walk in Kuala Lumpur (The Hindu, 10 December 2007)

KL street protests 'scare off tourists and investors' (Straits Times, 10 December 2007)

Lawyers not above the law (Star, 10 December 2007)

More arrests, turmoil in M'sia (Today, 10 December 2007)

Hisham: Counter minority voices (Star, 10 December 2007)

Malaysian Indians have achieved much; more needed (Star, 9 December 2007)

Those linked to terror groups to face the consequences (Star, 9 December 2007)

No to fanatics (Star, 9 December 2007)

MIC won’t intervene in ISA arrests (Star, 9 December 2007)

India stays clear of Hindraf (Star, 9 December 2007)

Govt supports ban on Hindraf’s business licence (NST, 9 December 2007)

Malaysia, not truly Asia? (Times of India9 December 2007)

Malaysia's ethnic Indian activists accused of terror links (AFP, 7 December 2007)

AP Interview: Ethnic Indian urges New Delhi to impose trade embargo on Malaysia (AP, 9 December 2007)

Ethnic Indians reject Malaysians' terror claim (Reuters, 9 December 2007)

Malaysian police halt human-rights day march (Reuters, 9 December 2007)

India stays clear of Hindraf (Star, 9 December 2007)

MalaysiaMalaysia's Prague Spring? (Asian Analysis, 8 December 2007)