Saturday, January 26, 2008

Malaysia Taipoosam festivity and politics

Hindu festival officially blessed, but there's politics in the picture
Thanking the gods … Hindu devotees take a ceremonial shower near the Batu Caves temple in Kuala Lumpur.
Photo: AFP

Lisa Murray in Batu Caves, Malaysia

January 26, 2008(The Sydney Morning Herald)
THE drums became louder as the sun beat down on the crowd gathered around the young men. They had painted faces and scores of two-centimetre hooks protruding from their backs, glistening with sweat.

A circle had formed around one pierced body, as an accomplice pulled on yellow ropes attached to the hooks, stretching the skin in different places. The crowd surged backwards as another yank sent the young man hissing towards them. For a moment, he stopped and smiled.

The spectacle is part of Thaipusam, a Hindu festival now banned in India but celebrated in Malaysia, Singapore and Mauritius.

It is the culmination of a month of fasting, abstinence from sex and sleeping on hard wooden floors. Devotees go through the pain to please the gods and ward off bad times, or thank them for recent good fortune.

Not everyone opts for multiple body piercings. For some who made their way to the Batu Caves temple, just outside Kuala Lumpur, a simple long pin through the tongue was enough. Others were content to carry heavy altars decorated with peacock feathers up the 272 steps to the temple. Many more have their hair cut off instead, providing brisk business for the makeshift barbers who set up business in the streets surrounding the temple. Pale orange heads dotted the crowd as newly shaved scalps were covered with sandalwood paste to protect them from the glaring midday sun.

On the surface, the festivities for the more than 1 million people who made the trek to Batu Caves, were the same as in any other year. But there was a political edge to Wednesday's ceremony.

For the first time, the festival was marked by a national holiday in Malaysia, in what some described as a cynical move to appease an ethnic minority group in an election year.

The Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi, announced the decision before 20,000 cheering Indians a week ago. The concession followed noisy protests late last year, organised by the Hindu Rights Action Force. Public protests are rare in Malaysia and the leaders of the action force have been jailed indefinitely.

The opposition party is hoping the protests, which called for fairer elections and an end to discrimination against Indians, will translate into votes, although a change of government is unlikely.

Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition of Mr Badawi's United Malays National Organisation and 13 other parties, has ruled the country for the past 50 years and no doubt will win again this year. The coalition extended its grip in the last election in 2004 by winning more than 90 per cent of parliamentary seats.
The main opposition parties are the Democratic Action Party, largely backed by Malaysian Chinese, Parti Islam SeMalaysia and Anwar Ibrahim's party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, which has only one seat, held by his wife Wan Azizah Ismail.

Groups such as Transparency International and Malaysians for Free Elections (MAFREL), are calling for international observers to monitor this year's election. They say the Government uses gerrymandering, intimidation and bribes to maintain its dominant position.

Malik Hussin, the head of MAFREL, said at a seminar this week that the Government paid voters in rural areas 50 ringgit ($17) to vote for it in the days leading up to the 2004 election.

Transparency International said if free and fair elections were held, the ruling coalition would still win but it might lose its two-thirds majority.

Most analysts expect the election to be held in early March. That way the Government can avoid campaigning during the economic fallout of a potential US recession. It also means that Anwar Ibrahim, cannot directly contest a seat. Mr Anwar, once the anointed successor to the former president Mahathir Mohamad, fell out of favour with the strongman and was jailed in 1998 for sodomy and corruption. The sodomy charge was later overturned but his appeal against the corruption charge failed, leaving him banned from direct involvement in politics until April this year.

Despite the political backdrop, this year's Thaipusam festival remained a personal pilgrimage for many. Saravan Yap, a businessman, treks up the cave steps every year. For 8-year-old Vetheswaran and his brother, Vethenthiran, 9, it was their first time. They were repaying the gods for surviving a car accident. Their father said they were thrown several metres in the air but sustained few injuries.

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