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Malaysian Indian Protests Open NEW Racial Faultline
Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Unprecedented street protests by ethnic Indians have opened up a new faultline in Malaysia's tense race relations, posing a major problem for the government as it faces elections, analysts said today.
Political observers in the multicultural nation, where minority Indians and ethnic Chinese live alongside the dominant Malay Muslim community, said the ugly scenes at Sunday's rally represented a new era of racial activism.
"It is quite clear we will have an emboldened community willing to fight for their rights. It's almost a renaissance or a rebirth," said leading commentator Charles Santiago.
"The young Indian population out there especially see discrimination on a daily basis ...For a lot of them, they feel they have NOTHING TO LOSE."
At least 8,000 protesters including women and young people massed near Kuala Lumpur's iconic Petronas Towers - meeting stiff resistance from police who beat them with batons and unleashed gas and chemical-laced water.
The rally was officially in support of a multi-trillion dollar lawsuit accusing former colonial ruler Britain of being at the root of Indians' economic problems by bringing their ancestors here as indentured labourers in the 1800s.
But it was more squarely aimed at the ruling UMNO , which stands for Malay interests and has ruled the nation since independence a half-century ago.
While Malays control the political scene and the Chinese population is dominant in business, Indians complain they run a distant third in terms of wealth, education and opportunities.
Analysts said that although they had long been a silent minority, many ethnic Indians have become radicalised by the increasing "Islamisation" of Malaysia, which minorities see as undermining their rights.
The destruction of hundreds of Hindu temples in recent years, sometimes with bulldozers moving in even as devotees were praying, has also caused intense anger.
"The Indians have become alienated and that has basically transformed the nature of resistance," said political analyst P Ramasamy, noting that ethnic Indian professionals were well represented at the protest.
"The character of struggle has changed. It has taken on a Hindu form - Hinduism versus Islam. And this is something that should not have taken place in a multi-racial society."
Ramasamy said he was certain there would be more protests, raising the spectre of serious racial violence - not seen since 1969 and something all sides on Malaysia's political scene are desperate to avoid.
The protests, which come shortly after another mass rally calling for election reforms, are a major headache for the government, which had been expected to call elections early next year.
Umno rules in a coalition with race-based parties including the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), which has been under fire for its handling of the crisis.
"I think it's very clear the MIC cannot speak on behalf of the Indian community any more," Ramasamy said. "Elections are around the corner and whether their majority will be reduced we will see."
Ordinary Malaysian Indians interviewed Monday defended the protests saying they were forced onto the streets by a government which had ignored their grievances for decades.
"I think its a stepping stone for a better future, although change may not come overnight," communications executive Thavamalar Muniandy told AFP in the capital's ethnic Indian Brickfields district.
"In my opinion the protest achieved its objective - we got the world to focus on us and the government can no longer ignore our concerns," said 24-year-old law student Sivamalar Ganapathy.
A retiree who gave his name as Subramanian said that since the 1960s conflict, which pitted Chinese against Malays fearful of marginalisation, the nation had focused too much on elevating majority Muslims.
"Sadly, we were often neglected in the process of development and side-tracked," he said.
"I'm sad to see that even after 50 years of independence we have to resort to such measures to express our dissatisfaction in a civilised country."