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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 March 2008, 17:24 GMT
Malaysia's lingering ethnic divide
By Robin Brant
BBC News, Malaysia

Protesters run to take cover as Malaysian riot police fire tear gas during demonstration in Kuala Lumpur (25/11/2007)
The protestors were calling for equal treatment and opportunities
Malaysia's prime minister has ordered his government to take a fresh look at recruitment levels of non-Malays, after thousands of ethnic Indians took to the streets to protest against what they say is years of discrimination.

At least 10,000 people gathered in central Kuala Lumpur last week to demonstrate against the unfair treatment they say they have had to endure.

Police used tear gas and water cannon to break up the marches.

The level of support was unprecedented, but, aside from the numbers involved, what has particularly concerned the Malaysian government is the ethnic division the protest highlighted.

Modern Malaysia is built on the co-existence of three ethnic groups - Malays, Chinese and Indians.

The protesters were Indians, who make up around 8% of the population, railing against the Malay majority, who account for about 60%.

The country has quotas that ensure preferential treatment for Malays looking for work or those who want to set up a business.

The Indians say this means they lose out.

Fears realised

P Waytha Moorthy (C), P Uthayakumar (L) and V Ganapathy Rao (R) on leaving a court in Klang, outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia  (26/11/2007)
The three men were charged with sedition before the rallies

P Uthayakumar is one of the lawyers who lead the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) - the organisation behind last Sunday's protest march.

Along with two colleagues, he was arrested and charged with sedition before the event, but later released without charge.

He says discrimination was something Indians have always been worried about.

"The term of reference of Malaysia's independence was equality for all communities, and there were many fears of the Indian community 51 years ago, just before we achieve independence," he said.

Now, 50 years on, as Malaysia looks forward to a new era of development, Mr Uthayakumar says those fears have become a reality.

"There was even one suggestion made... that we would be completely at the mercy of the Malay [Muslim] majority. Today it has become completely true," he said.

Unequal funding

Children in a Malaysian school (file photo)
Indians say Tamil schools have less funding than Malay schools

The marchers were calling for fairer treatment. Education is a key complaint.

They say their Tamil-speaking schools do not get the same money as other public schools, which means the level of teaching is lower.

But in the area of the capital where the Indian community is centred, 21-year-old graduate and telecoms engineer Tavan Aysan said he had done very well out of Malaysia's education system.

"In my case I didn't face that sort of a problem,' he said, but added: "It could be my luck."

But the people around us as we spoke, getting on with their work, illustrated the problem many complain of.

There were men cooking on the pavements as street vendors, and others weaving startlingly bright flower petals into beautiful garlands.

In modern Malaysia, the place where Apple makes its mice and Sony assembles many of its gadgets, flower arranging is not the way to a comfortable future.

Heightened anxiety

Protestors drenched by water cannon
Police used water cannon to disperse the Indian protesters

The two million Indians in Malaysia are predominantly Hindus, and the Hindraf campaigners say there has been religious discrimination too.

Hindu temples have been torn down to make way for new buildings without proper consultation, they claim.

All of this would be valid grounds for complaint in the eyes of many governments but in Malaysia, protests are not acceptable.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi warned people that taking to the streets was not "the proper way" in Malaysia.

They are concerned because of the multi-racial element in this country... it can grow into something which cannot be controlled
Dr S Subramaniam
MIC Secretary General

Even some Indians disagree with the cause of the Hindu Rights Action Force. Those Indians are the ones in government.

The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) is a founder member of Malaysia's coalition government, the Barisan Nasional (National Front), which has governed the country in some form since its independence 50 years ago.

MIC Secretary General Dr S Subramaniam said that street protests were "a culture which is totally foreign to this country".

"The people of this country are not used to it," he said.

"They are concerned because of the multi-racial element in this country... it can grow into something which cannot be controlled."

Concern about racial tension boiling over is not just because of what might happen, but because of what did happen.

Hundreds died in racial riots in Malaysia in 1969, when the country was barely a decade old.

The government sees any attempt to replicate that unrest as a threat to the nation itself.

'Social transition'

But there is also a contemporary political element to these protests.

A general election is coming here, probably in the new year, and the race card is a vote winner, although you are unlikely to hear many say that overtly.

At the recent annual assembly for Umno - the main party of Malays and the main party in the governing coalition - the politicians warned people not to challenge Malay rights, which lie at the foundations of modern-day Malaysia.

Mr Uthayakumar said that the protest rallies would go on if the prime minister did not begin a dialogue with his organisation.

Further marches are planned across Malaysia over the coming weeks, part of separate campaigns for different causes.

But it is clear that some in this country now seem to have got the bug for demonstrating.

The key difference with last weekend's protest was that it was a protest rooted in ethnic division.

That is why it is such a cause for concern for Malaysia's government.

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