Police crush largest ethnic Indian protest in Malaysia for years


Mon, Nov 26, 2007 - Page 1

Police used tear gas and water cannons yesterday 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 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 police. Shoes and broken flower pots littered the scene after protesters scattered to hide in hotels and shops. The organizers said hundreds of people were detained by the time the protest 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 Nov. 10 rally 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 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.

Yesterday's rally was meant to support a US$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 laborers" and exploiting them.

Ethnic Indians say discrimination continued after Malaysia's independence in 1957 because of an affirmative action policy favoring Malays, who form about 60 percent of the country's 27 million people.

Activists say more than two-thirds of ethnic Indians, who constitute about 8 percent 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 yesterday's protest as "an opposition ploy to smear the government's image."

Yesterday, thousands of ethnic Indians -- some of whom carried pictures of India's independence leader Mohandas Gandhi and banners that read "We want our rights" -- gathered before dawn near the Petronas towers.

"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."

Police 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 yesterday.

"We're still doing our work," Zulhasnan said. "This is necessary for law and order."