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The BBC's Simon Ingram
"Not everyone feels safe just yet"
 real 56k

Sunday, 18 March, 2001, 23:01 GMT
Ethnic strife shakes Malaysia
Ethnic Malays and Indians sit on the compound of a police station
The racial aspect of the clashes has shocked Malaysia
By Simon Ingram in Kampung Medan

From the window of the grim apartment block where 16-year-old Indran Rajasinga and his family live, the rubbish-strewn road where the attack happened is clearly visible.


Beneath the normally tranquil surface of Malaysian society, dangerous tensions and the potential for violence still lurk

"I was on my way home from school," he said. "This gang of Malay youths appeared from nowhere and started beating me with sticks. I have no idea how I got away."

Indran was lucky. A wound to his head that required stitches and an injury to his leg are the only scars he bears. But the fear is still there. He has not left home in days.

"Now I only need to see a Malay and I feel angry," Indran said. "If they attack the Indians again, we will fight back."

Gangsterism

Four days of vicious street battles in the squalid townships on the western fringe of Kuala Lumpur brought Malaysia its closest brush with serious ethnic strife in over 30 years.

Ethnic Indians
Ethnic Indians are among the poorest in the country
By last Tuesday, when hundreds of riot police and paramilitary troops had managed to restore order, six people were confirmed dead, and dozens of others were injured.

Some 75 people have been charged so far with possession of weapons and other offences.

Violent crime and gangsterism are endemic to this neglected corner of Malaysia's gleaming capital.

And while no one is quite sure how the trouble started on this occasion, it was the racial dimension to the clashes that shocked the nation.


Now I only need to see a Malay and I feel angry - if they attack the Indians again, we will fight back

16-year-old Indran Rajasinga
Malays and ethnic Indians who had been neighbours for years were suddenly attacking each other with machetes and swords.

Malays constitute the bulk of the population in Kampung Medan, as they do in Malaysia as a whole.

Fears

But several of the poorest neighbourhoods are occupied almost exclusively by ethnic Indians - descendants of Tamil immigrants brought here a century ago by the British to work on rubber plantations.

Malaysian police officers
Police officers patrol the ethnic Indian villages
Today, says political economist Charles Santiago, theirs is an impoverished community whose future is clouded by doubt and fear.

"Because this is the community that has been left behind, that has been forgotten, that is politically weak and economically weak, nobody cares," Mr Santiago said.

"This tells you the pathetic condition of the Indian community in Malaysia."

Action pledges

Indian community leaders say the police failed to give them adequate protection from their Malay attackers.

They also accuse the authorities of neglecting their desperate economic plight.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad
Mr Mahathir says the recent clashes were isolated incidents
Indeed, several abandoned, half-built apartment blocks stand as concrete testament to the pledges of better housing and other amenities made - and broken - over the years.

The eruption of violence has galvanised the authorities.

Teams of officials, led by Public Works Minister Samy Vellu, the most senior ethnic Indian in the government, have spent long hours in Kampung Medan this week, listening to the complaints of local people, and pledging rapid remedial action.

'Isolated incidents'

"The government has already taken several measures to take away the fear from these people," the minister said.

"You could have seen a lot of police protection here. But things are coming to normal now. As things become normal the number of police will be withdrawn," he pointed out.

Buddhist temple with Muslim woman
Malaysia is made up of many ethnic communities
"Now we have learned a lesson out of this: that there should be care attached to these people all the time," he said.

While Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has played down the recent clashes as isolated incidents, many observers are not so sure.

Malaysia sets great store by its record of maintaining harmony between its various ethnic communities.

Today it is clear that beneath the normally tranquil surface of Malaysian society, dangerous tensions and the potential for violence still lurk.

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See also:

13 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Malaysia clampdown after ethnic unrest
11 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Police clampdown on Malaysia violence
18 Aug 00 | Asia-Pacific
Row over Malay privileges
23 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Race issue clouds Malaysian festivities
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