26 Nov 07
Malaysia on Sunday faced its second big anti-government demonstration this month after nearly a decade’s absence of such protests, raising fears about whether the multi-ethnic country’s deep racial divisions could affect its stability.
Police used tear-gas and water cannon to crush a banned rally by 10,000 ethnic Indians, who were protesting about alleged discrimination by the ethnic Malay government. Ethnic Indians – 8 per cent of the 25m population – are Malaysia’s poorest racial group.
Clashes between the police and demonstrators occurred near Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Twin Towers and the Batu Caves, a famous Hindu site, with several hundred reported arrests.
The government has come under growing criticism by minorities for its decades-long policy of affirmative action to benefit the Malay majority. Ethnic Chinese and Indians complain that they are denied access to university places and state jobs. The policy is also seen as discouraging foreign investment.
Two weeks ago the main opposition parties staged a rally in Kuala Lumpur, demanding reform of election laws that they say are biased in favour of the government. The opposition supports some curbs on affirmative action.
The use of police force at both protests could provoke worries that the government might take tougher action against the opposition. Besides obtaining a court order banning the Indian rally, police on Friday charged three Hindu leaders with sedition.
The government of Abdullah Badawi has been expected to call a snap election within the next few months, but some analysts say signs of growing discontent may force him to delay the polls until 2009.
The rally was held in support of a lawsuit filed in London by the Hindu Rights Action Force, a Malaysian rights group, which is seeking compensation from the UK for bringing “indentured labourers” from India to the former British colony in the 19th century and exploiting them. But many protesters said they were demanding equal treatment by the current government.
Malaysia bans outdoor gatherings of five or more people.
Samy Vellu, the government’s top ethnic Indian politician, said the protest was “an opposition ploy to smear the government’s image”.