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Malaysia's Hindus show political muscle

Malaysia's Hindus show political muscle

Author: Baradan Kuppusamy
Publication: Asia Times Online
Date: February 6, 2008
URL: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/JB06Ae02.html

A new political force - right wing Hindu activism - has strongly emerged in multi-ethnic Malaysia, adding volatility in an election year to the country's already religiously charged political arena dominated by the majority Malay Muslims. Across the country, ethnic Indians, who make up about 8% of the country's 26 million people, are mobilizing to protest against alleged socio-economic neglect and discrimination in employment, education and business at the hands of the ethnic Malay majority.

It represents an increasingly vocal ethnic awakening with which opposition political parties are angling to join forces. Last November 25, ethnic Indians took to the streets en masse to protest against alleged discrimination, a protest that resulted in a government crackdown and the indefinite detention of five the Hindu Rights Action Force's, or Hindraf's, top leaders.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has acknowledged that the group's grievances as highlighted by the Hindraf may dent election prospects for his government's ruling National Front. "Yes, I think votes will be affected somewhat," he was recently quoted saying by the Sunday Star newspaper.

The ferment is now visible in the country's hundreds of Hindu temples where working-class Tamils, mostly youths and young married couples, gather to avoid police harassment and speak out against discriminatory pro-Malay policies. "We have been left out of 20 years of progress and development," said Munusamy Marimuthu, 28, a supervisor in a small rubber factory.

On the weekend, Marimuthu joined some 800 working class Tamils to pray to Lord Muruga, the sentinel god of the Tamils, at a Hindu temple in Kuala Selangor, a town set amid oil palm plantations about 70 kilometers east of the capital. They also broke coconuts, a religious act usually associated with seeking divine intervention to resolve woes faced by the Hindu religion's devotees.

"Our politicians have betrayed us - only our energy and our god can protect us now," said Marimuthu, a descendant of 19th century Tamil indentured laborers. He says his views echo that of the majority of Tamils in the country now caught up in the so-called "Makkal Shakthi" (People Power) movement.

The youths were led in their protest prayers by a saffron-clad priest from South India chanting in Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hinduism, which few of the congregation could understand. Nevertheless, camaraderie was high. "For the first time we are united and under the banner of our religion," said protester Arumugam Chedi, 39, a laborer. "Our religion is under threat, but now we are united and can show our anger."

Protesters released five pigeons in honor of the five incarcerated Hindraf leaders. The five are being held without trial at a political detention camp in Northern Perak state on charges of "developing links" with Sri Lanka's militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. They have all denied the charges.

Also at the center of the Makkal Sakthi protest were allegations that Abdullah has failed to take firm action to "right the wrongs" faced by the country's ethnic Tamils and for the harsh treatment meted out to the Hindraf leaders. In a new twist, protesters have also taken aim at the Malaysian Indian Congress, which is a partner in Abdullah's National Front coalition government and led by longtime president Samy Vellu.

On January 23, Hindus expressed their anger and frustration with Samy Vellu and the MIC by boycotting the Thaipusam festival, the biggest event on the calendar for Malaysian Hindus which is held annually at the Batu Caves temple complex outside of Kuala Lumpur.

Typically, about 1.5 million devotees and spectators throng the caves for the festival. But this year only about 300,000 Hindus showed up, and most people stayed away in support of the boycott and as a symbolic rebuke to Samy Vellu, who traditionally opens the celebration with an early morning speech. Phone text messages were used by Indian groups to convince Hindus to eschew the event.

"Indian anger is focused on Samy Vellu who is seen as betraying the community by not speaking up for its needs in the government," said parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang. "He should resign because Indians have rejected his inept leadership," said Lim.

Lim, who leads the Democratic Action Party (DAP), has demanded that two of the detained Hindraf leaders, M Manoharan and B Ganabathi Rao, be allowed to contest the elections, which are widely expected to be held in March. Both men are DAP members.

With Abdullah's popularity among Indians plunging and Samy Vellu's leadership discredited, Indian voter support for the government is at an all-time low. The opposition Chinese-majority DAP and opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim's National Justice Party are expected to be the big winners from the protest movement.

"We expect the majority of Indians to vote for the opposition this time," said Murugesan Kulasegaran, the only ethnic Tamil opposition lawmaker in Parliament. "They can be kingmakers in at least 30 parliamentary constituencies. Their voice will be heard this time," he said.

However, the rise of political Hinduism is also unleashing other potentially divisive forces in this fragile multi-ethnic society. As a counteraction to Hindu activism, Malay Muslim support is on the rise for Abdullah, according to recent opinion polls which show his popularity rising from 65% a year ago to 80% at present.

Another significant sign is that while Tamils are flocking to opposition party rallies, Malay Muslims and Chinese are conspicuously missing. Ethnic Chinese, who first arrived in Malaysia as laborers to work in tin mines, now represent 25% of the population and are economically the most vibrant group - controlling by some estimates 60% of the economy.

Observers say the business-minded Chinese, who historically have favored stability and a strong central government, are feeling uneasy with the rise of Hinduism as a political force.

"They fear how Muslims would react and the possible implication for stability and growth," said a senior University of Malaya lecturer who requested anonymity. "They worry because the multi-ethnic society is already under stress."

Still, the rise of Hinduism will have an impact on the voting trends among Malay Muslims, who represent about 60% of total voters, the lecturer said. "They are more likely to side with the government seeing it as better able to protect Islam against a Hindu upsurge."

The net effect, however, could be that the opposition political parties win large chunks of the smaller Indian vote, but lose a larger portion of the bigger Malay and Chinese votes.

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