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Malaysia crushes Indian rally - Biggest protest in a decade against government discrimination exposes deep racial divisions

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 26.11.07

Kuala Lumpur, Nov. 25 (AP): Police today used tear gas and water cannons to crush a banned rally by more than 10,000 ethnic minority Indians — a rare street clash that exposed Muslim Malaysia’s deep racial divisions.

Slogan-shouting protesters hurled water bottles and stones at the police, who chased them through streets surrounding the famous Petronas Twin Towers and doused them repeatedly with tear gas and chemical-laced water for more than eight hours. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Witnesses saw people being beaten and dragged into trucks by the police. Shoes and broken flower pots littered the scene after protesters scattered to hide in hotels and shops. Organisers said hundreds of people were detained by the time the protesters dispersed.

The rally — rooted in complaints that the ethnic Malay Muslim-dominated government discriminates against minorities — was the largest protest in at least a decade involving ethnic Indians, the country’s second-biggest minority after the Chinese and the most underprivileged.

“This gathering is unprecedented,” said protest leader P. Uthayakumar. “This is a community that can no longer tolerate discrimination.”

It was the second such street protest in Kuala Lumpur this month. A rally on November 10, that drew thousands of people, demanding electoral reforms was also broken up with similar force, but lasted only a few hours.

Street demonstrations are extremely rare in multi-ethnic Malaysia, which prides itself on its communal and political stability. The two protests indicate that Malaysians are becoming bolder about venting their frustrations publicly against a political system that concentrates power and influence in the hands of the Malay ruling elite.

Today’s rally was meant to support a $4 trillion lawsuit filed in London in August by the Hindu Rights Action Force, a Malaysian rights group, demanding that Britain compensate Malaysian Indians for bringing their ancestors to the country as “indentured labourers” and exploiting them.

Ethnic Indians say discrimination continued after Malaysia’s independence in 1957 because of an affirmative action policy favouring Malays, who form about 60 per cent of the country’s 27 million people. Ethnic Chinese, who comprise a quarter of the population, have similar complaints.

Activists say more than two-thirds of ethnic Indians, who constitute about 8 per cent of the population, live in poverty, with many trapped in a cycle of alcoholism and crime.

Samy Vellu, the government’s top ethnic Indian politician, denounced today’s protest as “an Opposition ploy to smear the government’s image”.

“We do not support street demonstrations,” Samy said in a statement. “We have been working within the system to resolve the problems faced by the Indian community.”

Today, thousands of ethnic Indians — some of whom carried pictures of Mahatma Gandhi and banners that read “We want our rights” — gathered before dawn near the Petronas towers.

Thousands more gathered in Batu Caves, a Hindu temple in a limestone cave on the city’s outskirts, hoping to join the others in a march to the British high commission.

“If they push us against the wall, we don’t know what will happen,” demonstrator Lingam Suppiah said. “The day must come when the time bomb will explode. We cannot be patient forever.”

The police had obtained an unprecedented court order prohibiting the public from rallying. On Friday, three of the Hindu group’s leaders were arrested and charged with sedition.

Kuala Lumpur police chief Zulhasnan Najib Baharudin declined to say how many people were arrested today.