Monday, February 4, 2008

Rising Hindu activism may upset Malaysia poll calculations

Malaysia: Rising Hindu Activism May Upset Poll Calculations
Analysis by Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 4 (IPS) - A new political force -- right wing Hindu activism -- has emerged in multi-ethnic Malaysia adding, in an election year, volatility to the country's already religiously charged politics dominated by the majority Malay Muslims.

Across the country, Indian Tamils are mobilising to protest against alleged socio-economic neglect, under the banner of Hinduism in an awakening that is vocal but disorganised providing an open field for opposition political parties to exploit.

Ethnic Indians, who make up about eight percent of the population of 26 million people, complain that majority Malays have used their political power and special privileges to corner for themselves opportunities in employment, education and business.

The Chinese, who first arrived as labourers to work in the tin mines, now form 25 percent of the population and are economically the most vibrant group -- controlling some 60 percent of the economy.

On Nov. 25, ethnic Indians took to the streets en masse to protest against alleged discrimination that resulted in the indefinite detention of five top leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf).

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

Much of the new ferment is visible in the hundreds of Hindu temples where working class Tamils, mostly youths and young married couples, gather to avoid police harassment and speak out against pro-Malay policies that they say has sidelined them.

"We have been left out of 20 years of progress and development," said Munusamy Marimuthu, 28, a supervisor in a small rubber factory, his two-year-old daughter, Savitri, in tow.

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 amidst oil palm plantations about 70 km east of the capital. They also broke coconuts, a religious act usually associated with seeking divine intervention to resolve woes faced by devotees.

"I am proud to be a Hindu," Marimuthu, a descendent of 19th century Tamil indentured labourers from South India, told IPS. "I feel protected."

"Our politicians have betrayed us… only our energy and our god can protect us now," he said echoing the views of the majority of Tamils in the country caught up in a '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 understood but nevertheless the camaraderie was high.

"For the first time we are united and under the banner of our religion," said another protestor Arumugam Chedi, 39, a laborer. "Our religion is under threat but now we are united and can show our anger."

At every such function the protestors also release five pigeons in honour of the five incarcerated leaders of the Hindraf. The five are being held without trial at a political detention camp in Northern Perak state, accused of "developing links" with Sri Lanka's militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). They have denied the charge.

At the center of the Makkal Sakthi protest are allegations that Badawi has failed to take firm action to "right the wrongs" faced by the Tamils and for the harsh action meted out to the Hindraf leaders in spite of the political support given to the ruling National Front.

Abdullah is blamed for standing by Samy Vellu, longtime president of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) which is a partner in Abdullah's National Front coalition government.

"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," Lim told IPS.

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, widely expected in March. Both men happen to be DAP members.

On Jan. 23 Hindus showed their anger and frustration at Samy Vellu and the MIC by boycotting the Thaipusam festival, the biggest event on the calendar for Malaysian Hindus, that is held annually at the Batu Caves temple complex outside the capital.

Typically about 1.5 million devotees and spectators, on average, throng the caves for the festival. But this year only about 300,000 Hindus showed up with most people staying away in support of the boycott and reject Samy Vellu, who traditionally opens the celebration with an early morning speech.

SMS text messages were extensively used by Indian groups that back the Hindraf to persuade Hindus to stay away.

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.

"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.

The opposition Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party and opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim's National Justice Party are potentially the big gainers from the Indian minority votes.

However the rise of Hinduism is also unleashing other potentially divisive forces that pose a potential danger to this fragile multi-ethnic society.

As a counter reaction Malay Muslim support is rising for Badawi, opinion polls show. From about 65 percent a year ago support is now nearing 80 percent and rising.

Another significant sign is that while Tamils are flocking to opposition party rallies, Malay Muslims and Chinese, who form 30 percent of the electorate of 13 million, are conspicuously missing.

Observers say the business-minded Chinese who cherish 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," a senior University of Malaya lecturer told IPS. "They worry because the multi-ethnic society is already under stress.'

The rise of Hinduism will have an impact on the voting trend among Malay Muslims, who form 60 percent of the voters, the lecturer said, asking not to be named. ''They are more likely to side with the government seeing it as better able to 'protect' Islam against a 'Hindu upsurge'.''

The net effect, many fear, is that the opposition political parties might end up winning "large chunks" of the smaller Indian vote but lose "large chunks" of the bigger Malay and Chinese votes.

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