Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Campaign for a 'fair' political order unifies opposition in Malaysia


in Singapore

Hindraf's campaign against the "marginalisation" of ethnic Indians has gained greater traction than it imagined.


Ethnic Indians protesting against the detention of their leaders under the Internal Security Act, in front of the Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur, on December 20.

The demand of "equal rights" for ethnic Indians in Malaysia, on a par with the "privileges" of the Malay majority, is not seen by the authorities in the upscale developing country as an outcome of discrimination against the minority. However, the campaign by the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) against the alleged marginalisation of the two million ethnic Indians has gained greater traction than might have been considered possible by the group itself. The reasons can be traced to not only the "outreach" of Hindraf in this age of cyberspace but also the intensified, even if diffused, campaigns by Malaysia's mainstream opposition parties for a "fair" political order. To see this reality evolving behind the scenes is not to argue that Hindraf and the multiracial opposition groups, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), have made a dramatic common cause.

In a sense, the timing of Hindraf's campaign and the current mobilisation of forces by Malaysia's mainstream opposition parties have largely coincided. Even this coincidence is not entirely without a common context – the ongoing celebration of the first half century of Malaysia's existence and progress as an independent state. On balance, however, there is nothing to suggest that Hindraf, on one side, and the DAP and/or the PKR, on the other side, have entered into a collective pact. This is so, despite the fact that at least two of Hindraf's leaders – M. Manoharan and V. Ganapati Rao, both in detention without trial along with three of their fellow campaigners – are associated with the DAP.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who often speaks of the need to cement the "fragile" inter-racial ties in his country, tends to see the current ferment in the opposition camp as pure election-eve activism. Hindraf is included, in this context, as an opposition outfit, even if not recognised as such under the law. And, Abdullah is widely expected to call a round of general elections in the early part of 2008. However, he is known to be a hands-on leader with a soft touch. So, it is unlikely that he missed the main political message from the opposition camp – the demand for a rebalancing of the racial and religious groups for the purposes of national governance.

Malaysia is home to not only the Muslim Malay majority and the original natives of the land but also ethnic Chinese and people of Indian origin (PIOs). Most of the two-million PIOs, 8 per cent of Malaysia's total population, are the descendants of those whom the British colonialists transported from South India as "indentured labourers". A significant number of these descendants still work on plantations in Malaysia although many others are in high-profile professions as well. In fact, Hindraf draws its strength, in considerable measure, from the PIOs in high-profile professions.

State-sponsored affirmative actions in favour of the Malay majority, a one-time "disadvantaged group" in the economic domain if not also the social sector, have gradually defined the political agenda of independent Malaysia. This perspective, largely propagated by Malaysia's ethnic minorities, is obviously seen in a different light by the country's leaders from the majority spectrum.

These affirmative actions are not said to have run their full course. And, any frontal political attack on this state policy, such as the one now mounted by Hindraf, is seen, therefore, as a deliberate campaign to undermine modern Malaysia's very foundation. In a sense, Malay leaders and activists in the mainstream opposition camp, too, do not tend to see these affirmative actions as a redundant policy in the present circumstances. However, Anwar Ibrahim, formerly a Deputy Prime Minister, who was later jailed for several years, and now a campaigner for political and electoral reforms, has indicated his readiness to consider the demands from the ethnic minorities.

As a long-standing leader from the Malay political class, Anwar is the de facto patron of the PKR. Under Malaysian poll laws, his current disqualification for any elective office, the direct consequence of his term in prison, will hold good for a few more months. Yet he has already hit the fast track to try and rehabilitate himself at the highest echelons of party politics. He is doing so in the opposition camp this time – as different from the long-governing United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), where he was a major player until 1998 when he fell from the grace of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed.

A crucial reason for the resonance of Hindraf's campaign within the larger opposition camp is this willingness of Anwar and his multiracial colleagues in the PKR to look at the issue of "rights" of minorities in some new light. Equally important to Hindraf is the similar political resonance within the DAP, which has evolved over the years as an organic multiracial political party on the mainstream opposition turf. Lim Kit Siang, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament and a high-profile DAP activist, has been particularly articulate in voicing support for the "cause" of the Malaysian Indians. And, he has also defended the rights of those Hindraf activists who, in his opinion, have not been given a fair deal in the legal cases against them.

By Christmas 2007, as many as 26 ethnic Indians were still awaiting verdict in a case of "illegal assembly" and alleged rioting by them on the eve of a mass rally that Hindraf had organised in Kuala Lumpur a month earlier. These 26 "suspects", as also five others (all university students), were originally charged with the offence of "attempting to murder" a police officer outside a temple in the early hours of November 25. However, as this case attracted wider international attention, given the context of Hindraf's political protest, the Malaysian authorities dropped the serious charge of "attempt to murder" a police officer. Prime Minister Abdullah played a crucial role in defusing a potential crisis over this issue. And, all 31, said to be no more than Hindraf "supporters" as different from members, were acquitted of the alleged capital offence. As this is written, 26 of them, excluding the five students who had gone to the temple to "pray" at the time of the alleged riot, are waiting for a judicial view on their admission of "guilt" in causing mischief.

The detention of five Hindraf leaders – the highest-ranking P. Uthayakumar, R. Kengadharan and T. Vasanthakumar, besides the two DAP-associated activists, Manoharan and Ganapati Rao – has also drawn unusual international attention. They were arrested on December 13 under Malaysia's tough Internal Security Act (ISA), which provides for detentions without trial. Under the relevant laws, no formal charges need be laid in court. Several allegations were, nonetheless, made against these five in the public domain prior to their ISA-related detentions. But, the key accusations against them were that they tried to fan "racial hatred" and were "a threat to national security". And, unless Abdullah, who is also the Internal Security Minister, de-emphasises his current strategy of neutralising Hindraf through a law-and-order approach, these five leaders may remain in detention without trial for at least two years.

Following these ISA-related detentions, an earlier "sedition" case against three Hindraf leaders – P. Uthayakumar, V. Ganapati Rao and P. Waytha Moorty – has become non-fructuous, at least for now. More importantly, "the case of Hindraf 5", as the relevant ISA-related detentions have come to be known, has become a talking point in mainstream opposition circles.

At one level, DAP leader Karpal Singh has sought the release of these detainees by filing habeas corpus petitions. At another and political level, DAP leader Lim has begun pointing to the logical inconsistencies in the case against "Hindraf 5".


Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, flanked by opposition party leaders Mustafa Ali (left) of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and Lim Guan Eng of the Democratic Action Party, at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, on December 12.

At an early stage of hearing in the case against 31 Hindraf "supporters", Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail argued against bail for them by saying that the group was suspected to have links with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). At that stage itself Uthayakumar, who was at liberty, told this correspondent over telephone from Kuala Lumpur that Hindraf had never fashioned any links with the LTTE.

Lim's line of argument acquires interesting overtones against the background of this denial by Hindraf. In his view, the argument about a link with the LTTE collapses under the weight of the Attorney General's withdrawal of serious charges, involving capital offence, against all the 31 Hindraf "supporters". While five of them were acquitted completely, 26 others were granted bail in respect of lesser charges not amounting to any capital offence. Earlier, Lim pointed out, the same Attorney General had opposed bail on the grounds of suspicions about a link between Hindraf and the LTTE. So, the granting of bail, following the dropping of the capital offence-related charges, should suffice to discount the suspicions of any nexus between Hindraf and the LTTE. Viewed in this perspective, Lim points out, the reasoning behind the continued detention of the "Hindraf 5" under the ISA, that too without trial, becomes "most suspect".

The close scrutiny of the Hindraf cases by the DAP and other mainstream opposition leaders in Malaysia provides a rare and new context for the campaign of this ethnic Indian group. Shortly after the "Hindraf 5" were detained under the ISA, Waytha Moorty told this correspondent over telephone from London that he would continue to lead the Malaysian "struggle" of this ethnic Indian group from the British capital. He had gone to London to advance the Hindraf agenda of internationalising the "plight" of Malaysian Indians. Waytha Moorty was earlier in India on a similar mission, although he did not get an opportunity to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. On the diplomatic plane, the Malaysian government was pleased that Official India did not encourage Hindraf. However, Waytha Moorty remains on Malaysia's watch list.

Within Malaysia itself, Hindraf's new coordinator, Thanenthiran said, after meeting Uthayakumar at the ISA Detention Centre on December 21, that all five detainees from their group were not subjected to any harsh treatment since their arrest a week earlier. According to Thanenthiran, Uthayakumar affirmed his loyalty to Malaysia even while calling for the continuation of the Hindraf "struggle".

The interplay of Hindraf's "struggle" and Malaysia's mainstream opposition's campaign for political reforms is beginning to come into greater focus. An umbrella group, with "support" from Hindraf as well, announced plans to hold a mass rally on January 5 against the detention of over 90 Malaysians from different racial and religious backgrounds, under the ISA. Some of them are being held on suspicions about their "terrorist" leanings or activities.

Significantly in this larger context, Hindraf's November 25 rally was preceded by a mass demonstration, led by Anwar himself, for political and poll reforms. The demonstrations that followed Hindraf's rally were a peace walk by lawyers in favour of "freedom of assembly" and a pan-opposition protest outside the Parliament complex in Kuala Lumpur against the alleged politicisation of the election machinery in favour of the ruling coalition. By design or otherwise, the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS in local parlance for Pan Malaysian Islamic Party) has stayed on the fringes of the unfolding events on the opposition turf.

Historically, since independence in 1957, Malaysia has been governed under a "social compact" of power-sharing by parties, each of which individually represents either the Malaymajority or the ethnic Chinese or the people of Indian origin. Some in the opposition have, during these 50 years, tried to think of an alternative model of multiracial parties competing for the right to govern Malaysia. It is anybody's guess at this stage whether the current political "unrest" in Malaysia will make a difference to the existing system.

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