Thursday, January 24, 2008

Malaysian Hindu festival marred by race dispute
A Hindu devotee closes his eyes as he recites a prayer during his pilgrimage to the sacred Batu Caves temple during Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur on January 23, 2008. Malaysian Hindu festival marred by race dispute
Wed Jan 23, 2008 5:12pm IST
By Clarence Fernandez
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's disgruntled ethnic Indian community marked one of southeast Asia's biggest Hindu festivals in muted fashion on Wednesday, with members divided over a national racial discrimination row.
The Thaipusam festival is normally a boisterous, crowded affair, but attendance this year was markedly down at the main venue, the Batu Caves temple complex atop a steep hill on the edge of the capital.
Members of the Hindu community are divided over the temple management's behaviour last year during violent protests involving thousands of ethnic Indians demonstrating against racial discrimination.
As expectations grow that the government will call early elections by March, the protests and temple row have the potential to divide Indian voters, who, despite making up just 7 percent of Malaysia's 26 million population, can sometimes influence marginal constituencies or policy.
Rowdy protests by more than 10,000 members of the community last year were stopped only by police using water cannon, batons and tear gas.
Many ethnic Indians were outraged when Hindu leaders at the Batu Caves complex handed to authorities dozens of protesters who had sought shelter there.
Although no specific group demanded a boycott, domestic media have said a campaign waged by telephone text messages and Internet blogs fuelled the antagonistic sentiment.
"I have seen a smaller number of people this year," said S. Manikavasagam, a spokesman for the Hindu Rights Action Force that organised November's protest, but which denied having called for a boycott.
"The people have shown their protest against the government and the temple management by staying away."
A spokesman for Works Minister Samy Vellu, the senior Indian leader in Malaysia's ruling coalition, dismissed claims of fewer visitors, saying that temple officials expect one million Hindus to have visited the shrine by the end of Wednesday.
"Today is a public holiday for the first time, so it is less congested with traffic than usual," said E. Sivabalan.
"(Also) The entire area has been redesigned to provide additional space for people to move about, so it is not as cramped as usual."
Visitors said there were fewer vehicles in the usually crowded streets near the temple, while officials seeking donations received just a sprinkling of one-ringgit notes, and shopkeepers said they had done less business than usual.
Around 7 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people are ethnic Indians whose forefathers were brought to the Southeast Asian country as labourers by British colonial rulers.
Many complain of racial discrimination and some accuse the government of trying to wipe out their culture by imposing Islamic laws and targeting Hindu temples.
For some, the row was not enough to stop their devotions.
"The god doesn't care which temple you go to, but I came here because I don't want to break the family custom of many years," said Kartik Manimaran, a slim 26-year-old garbed in yellow, who carried a semi-circular wooden shrine up 272 steep stairs.
"But many of my friends have decided to go to other temples because they felt the temple management acted unfairly."
Malaysian Indians boycott Hindu festival
17 hours ago
KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — Malaysian Indians stayed away in droves from a popular Hindu festival Wednesday, in a boycott linked to allegations of discrimination by the nation's majority Muslim Malays.
The colourful Thaipusam festival, during which devotees pierce their bodies with hooks and skewers, usually attracts more than a million people to Kuala Lumpur's Batu Caves temple, set in a spectacular limestone cavern.
But this year activists called on Hindus to celebrate elsewhere, accusing temple managers of assisting police who cracked down hard on a demonstration there last November, using tear gas and water cannons.
The crowds were thin Wednesday, numbering only in their tens of thousands, thanks to the boycott call and the prospect of more trouble.
A series of SMS text messages had called on ethnic Indians who did turn up to use their sandals to pelt political leaders including Samy Vellu, the leader of the Malaysian Indian Congress which is a member of the ruling coalition.
The veteran politician, who has sided with the government and been accused of neglecting the interests of his constituents, insisted there were at least half a million people at the complex and a million the day before.
"I have come to Thaipusam since I was 11 years old. I know the crowd. It is the same as before," he told reporters at Batu Caves.
"I don't think religious people who went to pray to Lord Murugan will listen to all the naughty fellows," he said of the SMS campaign.
"Who can threaten us? Anyone who threatens us we can find out where he is. It takes only five hours to find out where he is. They can't run away from us."
Stallholders and devotees lamented the small turnout and said ethnic Indians should work together to promote their cause.
"The crowd is normally double or triple this size. Now it's so small, so there is not so much of a great mood this time," said N. Kumaran, 41, a civil servant who has taken part in the festival for the past 14 years.
Sweet seller Joga Singh said that with the crowds so thin he and other vendors were not making any money this year.
"I think many people are afraid to come because of the SMS to boycott. Our business is suffering because of it," he told AFP.
At least 3,000 ethnic Indians gathered in the temple grounds to protest in November, and more than 8,000 people massed elsewhere the following day in unprecedented scenes that shocked the government.
In December it jailed five ethnic Indian activists under draconian internal security legislation that allows for detention without trial.
Malays, who make up 60 percent of the country's 27 million population, control the government while ethnic Chinese, who make up 26 percent of the population, dominate business.
Ethnic Indians, who make up 8.0 percent of the population, complain they run a distant third in terms of wealth, opportunities and education.

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