Fri, Oct 17, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Malaysia bans politically active ethnic Indian group


Malaysia has banned an ethnic Indian group spearheading a protest movement demanding equal rights for minorities in this Muslim Malay-dominated country.

The Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, was “detrimental to public order and security,” Malaysian Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said in a statement on Wednesday.

The group repeatedly organized gatherings without permits and tried to get international support, tarnishing the country’s image, Syed Hamid said.

The organization says its struggle to end discrimination is peaceful and applied last year to become a legally sanctioned group. But the ban, effective immediately, means it no longer has any hope of receiving legal status.

Anyone who joins activities associated with the group can be prosecuted and faces up to five years in prison for involvement in an “unlawful society,” said N. Surendran, a lawyer who frequently represents its supporters.

“It’s a way to criminalize Hindraf ... with the aim to stamp out the movement. They are trying to make things more difficult,” he said. “It’s not going to work obviously. It will anger not just the Indians but other Malaysians because most don’t view Hindraf as a threat.”

The organization shot to prominence last November when it led tens of thousands of ethnic Indians in a rare street protest calling for an end to government policies that favor ethnic majority Muslim Malays in education, jobs and business opportunities.

Following the demonstration, which was quelled with tear gas and mass arrests, five of the group’s top leaders were arrested under a strict security act that allows for indefinite detention without trial. A sixth leader fled the country and now lives in exile in London.

The rally was seen as a watershed moment in the country’s politics. It emboldened Malaysians unhappy with the government, strengthening opposition parties that made spectacular gains in general elections in March.

Syed Hamid said the organization threatened fragile race relations between Muslim Malays, who account for 60 percent of the population, and mainly non-Muslim, ethnic Chinese and Indians, which make up a third.

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