Happy Deepavali. We Will Let You Go Free on Bail (Malaysian Redux)

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Picture by Preston Merchant.

Happy Deepavali! Today I am wearing a new shirt and eating truffles. (Delish.) What a pleasant time! Other people are having a lovely Deepavali too, I hope and assume. Probably including the ten Malaysian Hindraf activists sprung on bail just in time for hols.

Per The Economic Times:

“A police spokesman said all of them were freed to enable them to celebrate Deepavali. “Although the police, under the law, could extend their remand orders to facilitate investigations, yet on humanitarian ground they were released to enable them to celebrate the festive occasion,” the spokesman added.

Shut UP! Malaysian government dudes, you guys are SO nice! SO generous! Especially considering what they did, gathering outside the PM’s office to deliver a memo

To review, Hindraf (the Hindu Rights Action Force) is a group in Malaysia that protests what The Economic Times calls “perceived discrimination against the [country's] estimated 2.6 million ethnic Indians, a bulk of them Tamil Hindus.”*

And as of earlier this month, Hindraf is banned in Malaysia. Longer backgrounder here, via SAJAForum.

*(Don’t get me started on my rant about news organizations using the word “perceived” for something they can damn well report on. Aren’t you supposed to be government watchdogs? Is there discrimination? Or isn’t there? Hint: there is.)Anyway, the ten Hindraf activists hanging out near the PM’s office were there to deliver a memo asking for the release of several of their leaders, who are being held indefinitely under Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (We-Can-Do-What-We-Want-And-You-Can’t-Stop-Us). The ten memo-delivering Hindraf activists were subsequently detained… along with ONE SIX-YEAR-OLD GIRL. (I repeat: six.) Her father is the Hindraf chairman, who is in self-imposed exile in London; her mother was one of the women detained.

Happy Deepavali, kiddo. Hm, my truffle suddenly doesn’t taste so good.

I quote from NDTV’s site:

The Hindu Rights Action Front (Hindraf) has been banned “for promoting extremism” and not for promoting “Hindu rights or Indian rights”, Malaysian Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar has said.

I don’t believe you, sir.

“On legitimate issues, nobody can quarrel with them. But we are taking action because we consider the way they have gone about doing things, promoting extermism. “They said ‘our enemies are the Malays, the Muslims’. This is in some of their speeches. “They have organised 17 forums, 338 street demonstrations. We took a long time before taking action because we don’t want them to think that because they are a society that seems to speak for a certain race or religion, we take action,” he was quoted as saying in first of the two-part interview given to a website on Thursday.

A response from the Centre for Independent Journalism in Kuala Lumpur (thanks to Anil Kalhan of SAJAForum for the tip):

…the decision is a setback to freedom of expression and will only send the signal that dissent is not tolerated. Hindraf supporters have organised several gatherings to protest the Internal Security Act, in light of the detention of five of its leaders for two years in Kamunting. Its latest gathering on 27 September drew two thousand people… According to media reports, Minister Syed Hamid Albar was quoted as saying that the ministry was satisfied with facts and evidence that showed Hindraf had and was being used for unlawful purposes and posed a threat to public order and morality. The right to associate and expression is guaranteed under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, albeit with restrictions through amendments passed over the years. CIJ believes that the issues highlighted by Hindraf are genuine and real socioeconomic and political problems faced by a significant number of people of Indians in Malaysia. The government has failed to engage and respond to the group and the issues they raised, which was one of the many reasons for the Barisan Nasional’s limited success in the March 8 elections. Banning the movement will not remove the frustrations and problems faced by the individuals, families and the community, especially when association is a fundamental human right. The best way for the government is to engage the group and work towards a more open and participatory solution.”

I don’t know if you get wishes on Deepavali. Pretty sure you don’t. I’m going to make one anyway–I hope that this is resolved in favor of equality and freedom of speech, and that the Indian communities of Malaysia remain strong and vocal, despite the banning of Hindraf.

Happy Festival of Lights.

(You may remember that I first came to this blog through a trip I took, last December, to Singapore and Malaysia. I was traveling with Preston, who had previously blogged for the Mutiny when he visited Kenya. He got us both permission to chronicle our new venture on SM.

We felt lucky to be traveling in those countries at a time of such political importance for the desi communities in Malaysia.

You can read our posts from that trip here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I think I’ve gotten all related posts, but please point out if I’ve missed something.)

Preston has also thoughtfully provided some pictures of a protest/vigil he was at when we were in Malaysia last year. There are also images of the police reaction. (The picture at the top of the page is from this same series.)

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(All images copyright Preston Merchant.)

18 thoughts on “Happy Deepavali. We Will Let You Go Free on Bail (Malaysian Redux)

  1. Ethnic Chinese are discriminated against in Malaysia too, right? Any chance of the desis working with them?

  2. No, I think the Han Chinese are too well ingratiated for any form of discrimination to be effective. Much of Malaysia’s economy runs on SME’s (Small & Medium Enterprises) and these tend to be insular Han-led family businesses. One generation to the next..

    Whlst the Tamils make up the rank of the poorly-educated wrking class. So, any cooperation is unlikely. This is just a HINDRAF fight.

  3. I love KL — it has such Kumbaya-potential with so many different nationalities mashed up in one country. Banning groups never makes things better. Even if Hindraf was extreme (which it’s not) it has a right to exist and demonstrate. Here’s to freedom of speech and free (and fair) press. Boo Malaysian government dudes. Major boo.

  4. I love KL — it has such Kumbaya-potential with so many different nationalities mashed up in one place. Banning groups never makes things better. Even if Hindraf was extreme (which it’s not) it has a right to exist and demonstrate. Here’s to freedom of speech and free (and fair) press. Boo Malaysian government dudes. Major boo.

  5. Please be advised that I have no ulterior motive in the posing of this question. I read the “background” links in your post, and could not find the answer. Did they deny the allegations that they identified “Muslims” as their enemies? I realize that focusing on this is somewhat peripheral to their overall agenda, but I’m just curious.

  6. Happy Deepavali y’all. Ah yes, the politics of Malaysia. Fun times! This doesn’t surprise me at all… well, except for the part where they arrested the 6 yr old.

  7. I think it’s a stretch to say that HINDRAF is anti-Muslim. It is against the pro-Malay policies of the government, the Bumiputra policies. Not all Indians are HINDRAF supporters, and HINDRAF is not a political party. In the March 8, 2008 elections, Indians split from the Malaysian Indian Congress (one of the pillars of the ruling coalition) and supported the Democratic Action Party (which is predominantly Chinese), as well as some other Muslim parties in the opposition. The result was that the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, was reduced from a 2/3 majority to a simple one. Indians played a significant role in turning the election, but they weren’t alone. Other minorities, including the Chinese, reacted against the government’s heavy handed abuse of the Indians, knowing that such discrimination could easily be channeled toward them.

    I’m not really sure what banning HINDRAF will accomplish. It has become a movement, a rallying cry, more than anything. Even among the hundreds of protests it has sponsored, it is not the only organizer. There are plenty of grassroots organizations that oppose the Internal Security Act and the detention of protesters–and most of these groups are not Indian.

    In Malaysia, HINDRAF has become synonymous with the Nov. 25, 2007, protest and crackdown, which was extreme, and the detentions of the five men who organized it. It’s shorthand for government abuse of power and the repression of free speech. Banning it isn’t going to stop the protests.

  8. Thanks, Preston. I agree with what he wrote, so I won’t repeat it. I will point out that Hindraf is a movement; if you say you’re in it and act that way, you basically are. What’s the relevance of that point? Well, to Faiqa: the government allegation about anti-Muslim sentiments–”it’s been in some of their speeches”–is so vague it’s almost useless to argue; the official didn’t feel the need to cite any Hindraf speech or person or incident in particular. And while there are Hindraf leaders, our reporting there didn’t indicate that they have tight control of all their members/supporters/affiliates, or even know who all their people are. The allegation is weak and unsupported by specifics; a denial would be equally so. That’s my take, anyway… But based on our experience there, Preston is right that to call the organization anti-Muslim would be quite a serious stretch.

    (And if there were a specific reference or citation, and someone from Hindraf did want to disavow…. how could they really counter when their movement has just been banned? To announce any affiliation would be to invite arrest, as this example quite clearly demonstrates.)

    Finally, I will translate Bhumiputera: sons of the earth/soil–policies to favor Malays, since it’s “their country.”

  9. Many journalists are inclined to view any Hindu organization as a hate group and the Malay govt is exploiting this. Anyone who identifies as a Hindu, even in countries where they are a politically disenfranchised minority,is automatically lumped in with the RSS/Bajrang Dal

  10. It unfortunate that KL like to promote its multi kulti & Kumbaya (hold hands across the globe) image to the world. On front page of the local(STAR) dailies, on day after Deepavali, seeing the leaders of the ruling parties together with the ethnic component parties posing for photos opps, clasping their hands greetings ala Nameste. I really wished the holiday sentiments was truly reflected and conveyed in print but it makes me gag. The sense of entitlement from the majority Malay race is never so prevalent when you walked into any State or Gvt offices, banks, the local media etc you really don’t see too many of the “other” races. Above all, you get this Nazi Home Minister whose idea of dealing with dissensions and criticisms from the minorities is “locking up(cause I can)” or “detention without due process” (on its own citizens) as the only way to quell discontent. The Govt does not lose sleep over how the world perceived it treatment to Hindraf plight but just start withdrawing foreign investment from the country only then will they wake up from their short sightedness.

  11. VV/Preston: Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t intend to imply that they were at fault somehow for not denying allegations. It seems apparent, from the information that you’ve presented here, that their agenda is a valid one, and their persecution unjust… the fact that the government has had to rely upon an attempt to foster inter-religious tension in an effort to undermine them seems to underline this point, IMHO. Nothing new, of course, but nonetheless disturbing.

  12. I will say that HINDRAF and its supporters haven’t been the best at the PR game. The march in KL on Nov. 25, 2007, which turned into a melee, was nominally for the purpose of presenting a list of grievances to British High Commission (the Brits were responsible for drafting Malaysia’s constitution, which codified the superior status of the Malay/Bumiputra community and disadvantaged everyone else). HINDRAF’s petition to the British High Commission allegedly sought redress upwards of a trillion dollars, payable to the Indians — whose families had worked as indentured laborers on rubber plantations in British Malaya. Of course, the whole thing was a stunt, but no one expected water cannons and tear gas.

    Also — and this is at the heart of the government’s justification for the use of the Internal Security Act — HINDRAF leaders, including at least one of the five men imprisoned, have made vague noises about LTTE-style resistance. Most Malaysian Indians are Tamils, and they are sympathetic to the Tamil Tigers and the cause of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. Now let’s be clear: HINDRAF is not a guerrilla movement and does not advocate the violent overthrow of the Malaysian government. The March 8th election proved that fact. HINDRAF very quickly morphed from a group demanding provocative but peaceful protest into a political strategy seeking opportunities at the ballot box in the form of several different non-Indian political parties.

    But last fall some of its insiders were pretty cavalier about speculating what Malaysia could look like if the Indian (Tamil) complaints were not heard.

    The big picture here, and worthy of discussion, is the role of Hindusim in Malaysian politics. The odd thing is that Indians have been in government since independence, but the Malaysian Indian Congress is largely seen as corrupt and ineffective. So in the last election, Indians mostly abandoned it for other non-ethnic parties, including the DAP, which has mostly Chinese among its constituents but is a secular, non-ethnic party.

    Kuala Lumpur is home to the annual Thai Pusam festival at the Batu Caves, which draws nearly a million Hindu pilgrims who pierce their flesh with skewers, hang little weights on them, and climb the 162 steps up the side of the mountain to the cave opening. It’s a huge bloody display of tridents and sacred ash, saffron, matted hair, wailing and drums. There is also an enormous gold Murugan statue, towering over the proceedings.

    In mostly Muslim Malaysia, some people find all this disquieting, even though the festival has been celebrated for years and is the purview of people tied to the Malaysian Indian Congress.

    But activist Hinduism as a political force is a new phenomenon — hence the odd name of the group in question: the Hindu Rights Action Force. The government also accused its leaders of ties to India’s RSS, for which there is no proof. But Malaysians read Indian newspapers and can see what some forms of political Hinduism look like in India, and India’s Hindu leaders, especially Tamil politicians, can be very vocal about criticizing the Malaysian government for its treatment of its Indian communities.

    All of this stuff aside, and excepting the fact that the HINDRAF 5 are still imprisoned without charge, Malaysia took a serious step toward reconciliation at the last election. The racial calculus is beginning to break down, and there is less support for the various entrenched quota systems and preferences that have defined the country since independence. HINDRAF and the Indian minority (and here we are really only talking about lower-middle and working-class Tamils) have shown that their future lies in their Malaysian citizenship, as participating members of a democracy and not as rebels, insurgents, or separatists.

  13. Thanks, P. I will add that “Hindu” is part of their name in large part because temple demolition was one of the first really visible things that got people to mobilize and organize. But at this point, those demolitions are part of a larger discussion that has to do with ethnicity as much as faith.

  14. 13 · Preston said

    All of this stuff aside, and excepting the fact that the HINDRAF 5 are still imprisoned without charge, Malaysia took a serious step toward reconciliation at the last election. The racial calculus is beginning to break down, and there is less support for the various entrenched quota systems and preferences that have defined the country since independence. HINDRAF and the Indian minority (and here we are really only talking about lower-middle and working-class Tamils) have shown that their future lies in their Malaysian citizenship, as participating members of a democracy and not as rebels, insurgents, or separatists.

    I appreciate that breakdown Preston. You seem confident about the possibility for future amity and harmony, but does the country not still face a very potent and maybe even rising tide of support among Malays for retrograde protectionist measures, often under the banner of religion and cultural preservation? I sometimes wonder if the rise of mainland Chinese power and influence won’t only stoke these flames further in the coming future.

  15. No, I think the Han Chinese are too well ingratiated for any form of discrimination to be effective.

    I wonder if this analysis isn’t (implicitly) a bit too left-wing. Yes, the Tamil intelligencia is more likely to be found in Toronto or Chennai (or, heck, Delhi or Staten Island) these days than in Jaffna or KL, but, still–the problem here is Malay ethnic supremacism, so I don’t see why working-class Tamils in Malaysia (like the unforgettable cabbie in Naipaul’s “Among the Believers” with his crab-purchase) and bourgeois Han Chinese in Malaysia can’t come together (combined, they’re a pretty big part of the population and economy) and reach an agreement that radically (yet, peacefully) reduces the power of the Malay chauvinists.

  16. RE: Sino-Indian alliance to counter Malay chauvanism.

    It’s a tricky issue. The primary reason the Malay government implemented such racially divisive policies in the first place was to prevent the Han Chinese from politically dominating the country. Generally they have the money and the connections to pull it off, especially at the founding of Malaysia. The Indians were in the same boat except they were more often working class.

    The problem with the system they set up though, was that it wasn’t dynamic at all. So as social pressures and class issues changed over time a political system designed to keep a balance where everyone stays in their place starts to chafe more and more.

    Long story short. Eliminating Malay chauvanism will just lead to Chinese chauvanism. I don’t think there is any easy solution here.

  17. I may not have the last word on the subject but I detect a tone of presumptuousness from NaraVara. Coming from someone who’s been living away from Malaysia for last 20 yrs and finally home. M’sian politics has always been murky at best due to this archaic colonist darconian law left behind from the British called ISA (Internal Security Act) and the present Govt that still imposed it at will (a very shameful legacy..). The detentions of (without trial) any persons deemed detriment or disruptive to the status quo. Among those detained unfairly is a blogger(from a Malay royal family), who is critical of the present govt, reporter, MP’s and not to mention Hindraf 5, among them many others who tried to change the political climate.

    The blackout and lack thereof local media coverage of Hindu grievances does not help it cause. Its been deemed a radical underground movement in most presses. There’s still a vociferous retrograde protectionist from the majority Malay. Any discussion pertaining to “social contract” is hijacked and politicized by the ruling party right wing. There’s plenty of fingers pointing to go around ie the Chinese(Han?? what history book did that word popped out) and Malay. My qualm is the British & the ruling class in drafting a constitution that does little to served the underclass minorities. All chauvinism (Malay or Chinese or Hindu) aside they have to do away with all the race based policies agendas and political parties.

    p/s Preston: I appreciate your insights on M’sian politics thanks VV for bringing it up I only wished more could be done